A projected near-doubling of measles infections has been identified amid rising severe and protracted outbreaks all over the planet, in poor and rich countries alike, the World Health Organisation (WHO) said, the UN News Service reported.
The statement came as in Bulgaria, the Health Ministry confirmed that currently 17 people had measles symptoms. Laboratory tests had confirmed five cases, including four children aged between one and three.
The Bulgarian Health Ministry’s Radosveto Filipova told news agency BTA that this was an outbreak, not an epidemic.
Bulgarian National Radio said that the five children, all from Razlog, were being treated at the St Anna Hospital in Sofia. None had been vaccinated.
WHO said that more children in the organisation’s European Region are being vaccinated against measles than ever before; but progress has been uneven between and within countries, leaving increasing clusters of susceptible individuals unprotected, and resulting in a record number of people affected by the virus in 2018.
In light of measles data for the year 2018 released on February 7, WHO urges European countries to target their interventions to those places and groups where immunisation gaps persist.
Measles killed 72 children and adults in the European Region in 2018. According to monthly country reports for January to December 2018 (received as of February 1 2019), 82 596 people in 47 of 53 countries contracted measles. In countries reporting hospitalization data, nearly 61 per cent of measles cases were hospitalised.
The total number of people infected with the virus in 2018 was the highest this decade – three times the total reported in 2017 and 15 times the record low number of people affected in 2016.
The surge in measles cases in 2018 followed a year in which the European Region achieved its highest ever estimated coverage for the second dose of measles vaccination (90 per cent in 2017).
More children in the European region received the full two-dose series on time, according to their countries’ immunisation schedules, in 2017 than in any year since WHO started collecting data on the second dose in 2000.
Coverage with the first dose of the vaccine also increased slightly to 95 per cent, the highest level since 2013. However, progress in the region, based on achievements at the national level, can mask gaps at subnational levels, which are often not recognized until outbreaks occur, WHO said.
“The picture for 2018 makes it clear that the current pace of progress in raising immunisation rates will be insufficient to stop measles circulation. While data indicate exceptionally high immunisation coverage at regional level, they also reflect a record number affected and killed by the disease. This means that gaps at local level still offer an open door to the virus,” says Dr Zsuzsanna Jakab. “We cannot achieve healthier populations globally, as promised in WHO’s vision for the coming five years, if we do not work locally. We must do more and do it better to protect each and every person from diseases that can be easily avoided.”
The UN News Service said that WHO’s appeal to member states to close gaps in vaccine coverage follows the previously announced news that an estimated 110 000 people died from the highly infectious but easily preventable disease in 2017.
“Measles is not going anywhere…It’s everyone’s responsibility,” said Dr. Katherine O’Brien, Director of Immunisation, Vaccines and Biologicals at WHO. “For one person infected, up to nine or 10 people could catch the virus.”
In addition to being potentially fatal, measles symptoms include rashes, blindness and inflammation of the brain. The virus can be transmitted extremely easily, by coughing and sneezing, and it can also survive for hours in a droplet of water.
It knows no “geographical or political borders,” Dr. O’Brien said, noting nonetheless that since the year 2000, deaths from measles have fallen by over 80 per cent “probably saving around 21 million lives” in that period.
The WHO alert follows its announcement that as of mid-January this year, it had seen 229068 reported cases of measles during 2018, in 183 member states, which have until April to file data on the previous year’s disease burden.
This is almost double the 115 117 cases reported at the same point last year, and WHO’s concern is based on the fact that the final number of infections rose to 173 330.
“Due to reporting delays and outbreaks late in 2018, we expect that these numbers will increase, as they have done in previous years,” the agency said in a statement.
By region in 2018, Africa saw 33 879 measles infections; of these, 4391 were from Madagascar alone, where 922 deaths have been reported in an ongoing outbreak that began last October.
The Americas recorded nearly 17 000 cases of measles in 2018, the Eastern Mediterranean, just under 22 000. In Europe, there were 82 596 infections in 47 of 53 countries, ahead of South-East Asia (73 133) and the Western Pacific (23 607).
There is no association between autism and the measles jab; that myth has been debunked, Dr. O’Brien said, noting that the study that started the falsehood, was based on erroneous data.
Nonetheless, in recent years vaccine coverage has stalled, at 85 per cent. This is far short of the 95 per cent needed to prevent outbreaks and leaves many people susceptible to the disease. Second-dose coverage stands at 67 per cent.
Before the introduction of the measles vaccine in 1963, outbreaks and epidemics occurred every two to three years, causing an estimated 2.6 million deaths every year.
(Photo: US Air Force)