Measles Cases Up 50% Last Year Due to Anti‑Vax Misinformation, WHO Warns
In 2018, cases of measles increased by nearly 50 percent worldwide, and the outbreaks have prompted the World Health Organization this week to issue warning of a global relapse in the fight against the virus.
Even in wealthy countries, like the US, where measles was ostensibly eradicated in 2000, “We’re having outbreaks that are protracted, that are sizeable and that are growing,” Katherine O’Brien, WHO’s director of immunisation and vaccines, told The Guardian. “This is not an isolated problem.”
Neither is it a properly reported problem. Data submitted to the WHO shows 2018 saw 229,000 cases of measles globally, compared to 170,000 in 2017, but O’Brien says fewer than 10 percent of measles cases are actually reported worldwide, putting the number of infections last year closer to “in the millions.” Of these, at least 55,399 confirmed cases occurred in India.
Measles is a highly contagious viral disease that can have serious complications. Not only is it often accompanied by concurrent ear and eye infections, pneumonia, and seizures, it can also prompt serious complications like meningitis and encephalitis — infection of the spinal cord and brain — vision damage or loss, and death. Of the 229,000 measles cases reported worldwide in 2018, nearly 60 percent were deadly.
By contrast, the measles vaccine, which was discovered in 1963, is credited by experts at the US’ Center for Disease Control with having saved 20.4 million lives globally in the 16-year period between 2000 and 2016 alone.
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In poorer countries, such as Madagascar, Chad, Sierra Leone and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a lack of access to the measles vaccine — often administered in conjunction with the rubella (MR), mumps (MMR), and varicella (MMRV) vaccines — is driving outbreaks. But in wealthier countries, O’Brien says, complacence, combined with false claims linking vaccination to autism, have created made populations vulnerable to a highly preventable disease.
In India, both forces are at play, with WhatsApp-circulated misinformation dogging the Government’s MR (measles and rubella) vaccine drive and misled and worried parents and schools withdrawing from eradication efforts.
“We’re backsliding on the progress that has been made,” O’Brien told The Guardian. “And we’re not backsliding because we don’t have the tools to prevent this. We do have the tools to prevent measles,” she said.
“We’re backsliding because of the failure to vaccinate.”