Measles outbreaks in the US have led to New York City declaring a public health emergency where unvaccinated people can be fined ( Shannon Stapleton/REUTERS )
A global resurgence of measles shows no sign of slowing down as preliminary data from the World Health Organisation (WHO) reveals four times more cases were reported for the first three months of 2019.
Initial figures show 112,163 cases of the highly infectious disease were reported across 170 countries by April, compared to 28,124 in the same period last year.
The WHO said this “indicates a clear trend” with many counties in the midst of sizeable outbreaks, and every region it monitors seeing an increase in cases of the potentially deadly disease.
There has been a 300 per cent rise in cases reported in Europe – which last year saw the highest number of cases for a decade – and a nearly 700 per cent rise across Africa, the WHO said.
New outbreaks in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Madagascar, Myanmar, the Philippines, Sudan, Thailand and Ukraine, are “causing many deaths – mostly among young children”, it added.
The WHO has previously warned a rising tide of anti-vaccine scepticism, increasingly propagated by false claims on social media, has contributed to the resurgence of measles in many areas where it was virtually eradicated.
“Spikes in case numbers have also occurred in countries with high overall vaccination coverage, including the United States of America as well as Israel, Thailand, and Tunisia, as the disease has spread fast among clusters of unvaccinated people,” the WHO added.
The disease is one of the most contagious in the world, and caused close to 110,000 deaths in 2017.
Even in high income countries around a quarter of cases end up in hospital because of complications, which can cause life-long disability, brain damage, deafness and blindness.
The failure to adequately fund vaccination programmes and health awareness schemes in developing countries is another major driver of outbreaks.
There have been more than 115,000 cases – and 1,200 deaths – in Madagascar since September, sparking an emergency vaccination programme which reached seven million children under the age of nine.
The figures show new measles cases and deaths in the country are starting to decline.
Definitive measles data is released by the WHO in July, but it warned any case figures are likely to be a significant underestimate as less than 10 per cent of infections are reported.
Measles is almost entirely preventable with two vaccination doses, but global coverage has stalled.
Only 67 per cent of people received both doses globally and the 85 per cent who received one dose is not enough to provide “herd immunity”, which can stop the infection from spreading through a population.
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Much of the modern anti-vaccination movement can be traced back to a 1998 paper from disgraced researcher Andrew Wakefield who claimed the combined measles, mumps and rubella vaccination increases risks of autism.
Mr Wakefield has since been stripped of his medical license and the paper, which has never been replicated, withdrawn. However he remains a driving figure of the anti-vaxxer movement in America.