Measles cases worldwide surged to the highest number in nearly a quarter of a century in 2019 due to a drop in vaccinations that is expected to worsen this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the World Health Organization (WHO) and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
In a study published on November 12, WHO and CDC said there were nearly 870,000 measles cases in 2019, the highest number reported since 1996.
The number of deaths also increased to about 207,500, nearly 50 percent more than in 2016.
Last year, every region of the world witnessed increases in recorded infections, with large outbreaks in nine countries including Georgia, Kazakhstan, North Macedonia, and Ukraine accounting for 73 percent of global cases.
Health officials blamed the backsliding on a failure to vaccinate children on time with two doses of the measles vaccine.
“We know how to prevent measles outbreaks and deaths,” said WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. “These data send a clear message that we are failing to protect children from measles in every region of the world.”
To prevent measles outbreaks, health officials say about 95 percent of a national and local population must be immunized.
Vaccination coverage for one dose of the vaccine has been stagnant globally for more than a decade at 85 percent, while coverage for two doses is only at 71 percent.
For 2020 and 2021, the secondary impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on measles has health officials worried.
The pandemic has resulted in the disruption of vaccination campaigns effecting 94 million people in 26 countries.
“Before there was a coronavirus crisis, the world was grappling with a measles crisis, and it has not gone away,” said Henrietta Fore, the executive director of the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF). “While health systems are strained by the COVID-19 pandemic, we must not allow our fight against one deadly disease to come at the expense of our fight against another.”
In addition to weak health systems and the inability to reach children, WHO said growing vaccine hesitancy was an additional problem in some countries.
In particular, debunked claims that the combined measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine causes autism has led to an anti-vaccination movement in some developed countries.
WHO says that measles vaccinations have saved more than 25.5 million lives globally since 2000.
Measles is a highly contagious disease that mostly strikes children under five.