Preliminary measles surveillance data released by the World Health Organization (WHO) has revealed a stark surge in reported global cases over the first three months of 2019. The WHO data indicates measles cases are 300 percent higher than at the same time in 2018, with major outbreaks currently occurring in a dozen different countries.
The WHO report notes its data is still incomplete and provisional, estimating only around one in 10 measles cases are officially reported, suggesting the real numbers are most likely considerably higher. With data gathered from 170 countries, the report says there have been 112,163 cases of measles reported so far in 2019. At this same time last year the WHO had noted 28,124 measles cases from 163 countries.
The biggest increases are being reported in African regions with cases on the continent up 700 percent from 2018. Official measles outbreaks are currently underway in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Madagascar, and Sudan. More localized spikes are also ongoing in countries with traditionally higher vaccination coverage, such as the United States and Israel.
In an editorial published by CNN, Henrietta H Fore, executive director of UNICEF, and Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director general of the World Health Organization, are frank in their description of this event as a "global measles crisis." As well as pointing to countries where weak health care and poverty underpin the rise in measles cases, Fore and Ghebreyesus squarely direct blame in high and middle income countries at the growing wave of vaccine hesitancy and spread of misinformation.
Earlier this month, New York health commissioner Oxiris Barbot declared a public health emergency following the largest measles outbreak in the city in almost 30 years. Across the entire United States measles is presenting as a looming health emergency with 555 cases already reported this year alone. In comparison, only 372 cases were reported across the whole of 2018. If this rate continues for the rest of the year 2019 will present the highest volume of measles cases seen in the country in decades.
Fore and Ghebreyesus suggest a multi-pronged offensive is the only way to push back against the reemergence of this stubborn killer virus. While the WHO is working to respond to current outbreaks and distribute vaccines in those areas where the virus may be accelerating its spread, the battle is only just beginning for health workers around the globe, and for those fighting the growth of vaccine misinformation.
"It requires each of us to stand up for science, for health and for the importance of vaccines," Fore and Ghebreyesus write. "It means building basic scientific literacy – ensuring people can interpret and understand information about their health and vaccines."
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