By Kate Kelland
LONDON (Reuters) – Measles surged to infect almost 870,000 people across the world in 2019, the worst figures in almost a quarter of a century as vaccination levels fell below critical levels, a report said on Thursday.
Millions of children are at risk of the disease again this year as restrictions imposed to contain the COVID-19 pandemic further disrupt immunization programs, the report co-led by the World Health Organization (WHO) said.
Measles is one of the most contagious known diseases – more so than COVID-19, Ebola, tuberculosis or flu.
More than 207,000 people died of it last year alone, the report found. With immunization coverage below the critical 95% needed for community protection, infections rose in all WHO regions last year to the worst levels since 1996, it said.
“These data send a clear message that we are failing to protect children from measles in every region of the world,” the WHO’s Director-General, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said in a statement.
The surge in fatal cases means global measles deaths have risen nearly 50% since 2016.
The report, co-led by the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), cited a collective failure to fully immunize children on time with two doses of measles vaccine as the main driver of the deadly increases.
Looking ahead to 2020, the report warned that disruptions to vaccination due to the COVID-19 pandemic have crippled efforts to curb measles outbreaks.
As of this month, more than 94 million people were at risk of missing measles vaccinations due to paused immunization campaigns in 26 countries, it said.
“COVID-19 has resulted in dangerous declines in immunization coverage,” Seth Berkley, chief executive of the GAVI global vaccine alliance, said.
He described the “alarming” measles report was “a warning that, with the COVID-19 pandemic occupying health systems across the world, we cannot afford to take our eye off the ball.”
After steady downward progress from 2010 to 2016, measles cases began rising again from 2017. The report said there were a total of 869,770 measles cases, with 207,500 deaths, in 2019.
WHO and the UN children’s fund UNICEF urged governments last week to act now to prevent epidemics of measles, polio and other infectious diseases.
(Reporting by Kate Kelland, editing by Andrew Heavens)