The world has not done enough to improve vaccination coverage, and now, measles is experiencing a resurgence in nearly every corner of the globe.
Last year, the number of reported measles cases spiked by more than 30 percent worldwide, according to a new report from the World Health Organization (WHO) and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Experts have been warning for years that something like this could happen. Because even though measles is easily preventable through two doses of a vaccine, we need about 95 percent coverage to stop outbreaks from happening.
Today, this goal is still a ways off. For nearl y a decade, we have failed to get vaccination coverage past the 85 percent mark. And after years of languishing, the gaps in vaccination are finally taking their toll.
In 2017, the new report found five out of all six WHO regions in the world experienced an upsurge in measles outbreaks, especially in the Americas, Europe and the Eastern Mediterranean. Only in the Western Pacific did the number of measles cases fall.
« Without urgent efforts to increase vaccination coverage and identify populations with unacceptable levels of under- , or un-immunised children, we risk losing decades of progress in protecting children and communities against this devastating, but entirely preventable disease, » warns Soumya Swaminathan, Deputy Director General for Programmes at WHO.
To really understand what that means for the world, we only have to look back a few generations.
Before 1963, when there was no measles vaccine, the world experienced a major measles outbreak every few years, causing 2.6 million deaths annually.
Five decades later, the world is closer than ever to eliminating this highly contagious and potentially deadly disease. In fact, countries like the US, the UK, Australia, New Zealand and Japan have already done so, and many more nations are on the brink of doing the same.
Thanks to this worldwide effort, since the turn of the century, the measles vaccine has saved over 21 million lives, decreasing the global death toll by 80 percent in just 17 years.
But after years of progress , things have begun to take a turn for the worst, thanks in large part to a lack of funding and a rise in misinformation.
« The resurgence of measles is of serious concern, with extended outbreaks occurring across regions, and particularly in countries that had achieved, or were close to achieving measles elimination, » said Swaminathan.
Watching measles make a global comeback is kind of like watching a character in a horror film make dumb decisions in slow motion. As a global community, we know that there is a safe and effective way to eliminate measles at our fingertips and yet we keep failing to use the weapon at hand.
Instead, we are running up the goddamn stairs once again.
In 2017, the report found that 20.8 million infants worldwide did not receive the first measles vaccine.
« The increase in measles cases is deeply concerning, but not surprising, » says Seth Berkley, CEO of Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance.
Most public health experts have seen this coming for years. Organisations like WHO and its partners in the Measles & Rubella Initiative have warned before that if vaccination rates aren’t strengthened, this preventable-disease could rebound.
But with measles posing much less of a threat today, many nations have become careless in their attempts to ensure its elimination. In addition, false rumours, misconceptions and myths about the vaccine have only served to fuel recent outbreaks.
In Europe, for instance, here misinformation about the measles vaccine is particularly evident, vaccination coverage in some areas is at less than 70 percent.
« Complacency about the disease and the spread of falsehoods about the vaccine in Europe, a collapsing health system in Venezuela and pockets of fragility and low immunisation coverage in Africa are combining to bring about a global resurgence of measles after years of progress, » explains Berkley.
The authors of the report are calling for urgent action. They say we need sustained investment so that routine vaccination services can be strengthened, especially among the poorest and most marginalised communities.
At the same time, they argue we also need to ensure public support for immunisations, combatting misinformation and hesitancy around vaccines as much and as soon as possible.
« Existing strategies need to change: more effort needs to go into increasing routine immunisation coverage and strengthening health systems, » arguesBerkley.
« Otherwise we will continue chasing one outbreak after another. »