Auxiliary nurse Claudia Guillermo administers a measles vaccination to 1-year-old Jimena Nicole Xoj Caal at a UNICEF-supported health centre in the city of Cobán. | CREDIT: © UNICEF / NYHQ2012-2216 / SUSAN MARKISZ

There Has Been a 300% Increase in Measles Cases This Year

It is not usual that the heads of UNICEF and the World Health Organization would team up to jointly warn the world about a fast spreading disease that stalks children. But a sudden surge in measles cases in the first three months of 2019 is also unprecedented.

On UNICEF’s Henrietta Fore and the WHO’s  Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus write:

We are in the middle of a global measles crisis. Cases have soared across the world, including in places where measles had previously been eliminated — like the United States. In this year to date, the United States has already seen its second-greatest number of cases since 2000. And this past week, New York City declared a public health emergency due to the rapid spread of the virus.

Behind each of these outbreaks, an alarming picture unfurls. In just the first three months of 2019, there have been more than 110,000 measles cases reported worldwide, a figure that is up nearly 300% from the same period last year. And these numbers will represent just a fraction of all the cases that occur. By the time you finish reading this, we estimate that at least 40 people — most of them children — will be infected by this fast-moving, life-threatening disease.
To do our part, the World Health Organization and UNICEF, along with other partners of the Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, are working to ensure that vaccines reach more people in more countries than ever before. We are supporting national authorities to strengthen health systems and services, respond to outbreaks and build trust.
Ultimately, there is no “debate” to be had about the profound benefits of vaccines. We know they are safe, and we know they work. More than 20 million lives have been saved through measles vaccination since the year 2000 alone.
But children are paying the price for complacency. It will take long-term efforts, political commitment and continuous investment — in vaccine access, in service quality and in trust — to ensure we are, and remain, protected together.
On April 16, the World Health Organization released the latest global surveillance data on measles, saying that all regions of the world are experiencing “sustained rises in cases.  Current outbreaks include the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Madagascar, Myanmar, Philippines, Sudan, Thailand and Ukraine, causing many deaths – mostly among young children.”

What is most disturbing is that spikes in cases are occurring in countries with overall high vaccination coverage, including the United States, Israel, Thailand and Tunisia.

Measles is a global health success story

Measles has plagued humans—particularly children — for centuries. It is a fast spreading disease that can both sicken and kill people, mostly children under five years old.  Before widespread measles use of the measles vaccine in the mid 1960s, epidemics would occur every few years, killing an estimated 2.6 million people every year. By 2000 the death toll from measles was around 560,000 children per year.  And by 2017, the last year for which we have reliable data, approximately 110,000 people died from measles — an 80% decline.  The trajectory was clearly going in the right direction, thanks to greater vaccine coverage — particularly in sub-saharan Africa where most deaths occur.

But these gains are now suddenly looking more fragile and the nature of the measles virus suggests that anything less than near universal vaccination means that these outbreaks will continue to occur.