Measles outbreaks now a global problem thanks to anti-vaxxers
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- Measles outbreaks are becoming more of a global problem, with more than 300,000 suspected and confirmed cases worldwide .
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Connecting the dots
The measles are making a big comeback.
The latest figures from the World Health Organization show that 2018 will be another (modern) record-setting year for the highly contagious yet easily preventable disease, with 301,702 suspected and confirmed cases worldwide through the end of October. But those represent just a fraction of the actual number of infections, as most cases in the developing world go unreported.
Late last month, the WHO and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, published a report that found a 31 per cent rise in worldwide measles cases in 2017, estimating 110,000 deaths due to the disease, mostly children under the age of five. Reported cases have increased in five of the six world health regions, with only Western Pacific nations like Australia and Japan showing progress.
Targeted vaccination campaigns have reduced the number of measles deaths by 80 per cent over the past two decades, from an estimated 545,000 fatal cases in 2000. But vaccine coverage, which needs to be at 95 per cent to offer “herd immunity” and effectively end outbreaks of the disease, has stalled at around 85 per cent and has been falling in several countries.
The reason is the anti-vaxxer movement, which has lately been gaining strength and support from populist governments who share their science skepticism.
A report in today’s Guardian newspaper captures the frustration of the European Union’s health commissioner, Dr. Vytenis Andriukaitis, at the close to 64,000 cases and 72 deaths across the continent so far this year.
“Not just me – all of scientific society is concerned – epidemiologists, pediatricians, infectious disease experts and a lot of health ministers,” he told the paper. “It is unimaginable that we have deaths because of measles – children dying because of measles. We promised that by 2020 Europe would be measles free.”
Immunization rates have fallen in places like Romania, Italy, Poland and France, as the internet continues to spread discredited concerns about the safety of the MMR vaccine and governments have made it easier for parents to opt out. And the number of cases across Europe have grown exponentially, from 5273 in 2016, to 23,927 last year and now almost triple that figure.
This year, Europe has experienced a particularly large measles outbreaks in Ukraine — 45,000 sickened — and sizeable ones in Serbia, Greece, and Albania among others, with cases now documented in 42 of its 53 nations. In fact, Europe now has more suspected and confirmed cases than Africa, and ranks second behind Southeast Asia, where India is currently experiencing the world’s worst outbreak.
But the problem is global.
Venezuela has seen a sharp spike in the measles in the midst of its economic and political meltdown, with more than 6,000 confirmed cases since the summer of 2017, as has neighbouring Brazil, which reports 9,800 cases. Madagascar has had more than 10,000 cases over just the past three months.
And this week, Israel saw its second measles death in a month, as the nation grapples with an outbreak that has affected 2,690 people, resulting in 948 hospitalizations.
It has been a relatively quiet year for measles in North America, with 292 cases reported across the United States, and 29 in Canada — the latest leading to a public health alert this week in the Greater Toronto region.
The highly contagious disease, which can be spread by coughs or sneezes, usually manifests itself with cold-like symptoms and a rash. But in certain cases it can cause serious and potentially deadly complications, including encephalitis, meningitis and pneumonia.
Before the MMR vaccine became widely available in 1980, the measles used to kill 2.6 million people every year. And the the WHO estimates that the two dose treatment has prevented 21.1 million deaths since 2000.