According to new data released Thursday by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), reported measles cases increased in 2017, threatening years of progress in public health and highlighting gaps in immunization coverage around the world.
Between 2000 and 2017, the reported incidence of measles decreased by 83%, saving about 21 million lives and reducing measles mortality by 80%, the new data indicate. But by the end of this period, researchers have observed a worrying trend: between 2016 and 2017, measles cases reported increased by 31% worldwide.
Increases have been observed in almost all disease surveillance regions, with the largest peaks occurring among countries in the Americas, Europe and the Eastern Mediterranean. Only the Western Pacific region has declined.
Measles is a highly contagious viral infection that can cause a revealing rash, high fever and cough; in severe cases, this can result in swelling of the brain, pneumonia, loss of vision or death. The virus can be prevented with a two-dose vaccination.
The fact that measles cases multiply even in countries that have largely eliminated the disease suggests that reluctance to be vaccinated could be to blame, say health officials. According to the WHO, "gaps in immunization coverage" resulted in 110,000 deaths.
For example, in Italy, where anti-vaccine sentiment is particularly strong, measles has become a renewed public health problem.
According to WHO, the global coverage of the first dose of the vaccine is about 85% – an improvement since 2000, but still below the target of 95% of health officials – while coverage of the second dose is well below 67%.
"Without urgent efforts to increase immunization coverage and identify populations with unacceptable rates of under-immunized or unvaccinated children, we risk losing decades of progress in protecting children and communities from this devastating disease but totally preventable, "said the Director-General of WHO Programs Mr. Soumya Swaminathan said in a statement.