More than 140,000 people died from measles worldwide last year, the WHO and US authorities said on Thursday, the result of global vaccination rates that have stagnated for almost a decade.
Poorer countries were hardest hit, with the vast majority of measles cases and deaths in sub-Saharan Africa.
However, wealthier countries have also been battling their own outbreaks, with four European nations losing their “eliminated” status last year.
The announcement came as the Pacific island nation of Samoa was locked down in order to carry out a mass vaccination drive to cope with an epidemic that has killed 62 and, according to UN officials, was fueled by anti-vaxxer conspiracy theories on the Internet.
“The fact that any child dies from a vaccine-preventable disease like measles is frankly an outrage and a collective failure to protect the world’s most vulnerable children,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said.
“To save lives, we must ensure everyone can benefit from vaccines — which means investing in immunization and quality healthcare as a right for all,” he said.
Most of the deaths occurred among children younger than five. Babies and infants are at greatest risk of infection and of developing complications, including pneumonia and brain swelling that can lead to permanent damage, blindness or hearing loss.
About 142,300 people lost their lives to the disease last year — a quarter of the number of deaths in 2000, but up 15 percent from 2017. There were 9.7 million total cases.
The WHO and the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) estimated that 86 percent of children globally last year received the first dose of measles vaccine, but less than 70 percent received the second recommended dose.
That is far short of the recommended 95 percent vaccination coverage, with two doses of measles vaccine deemed necessary to protect populations from the disease.
The five worst affected countries — the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Liberia, Madagascar, Somalia and Ukraine — accounted for half of all cases worldwide.
However, the US also saw its highest number of cases in 25 years, narrowly avoiding losing its status of having eliminated the disease. The status is lost if an outbreak is sustained for more than a year.
Albania, the Czech Republic, Greece and the UK all lost their eliminated status.
The rise comes as a growing anti-vaccine movement gains steam worldwide, driven by fraudulent claims linking the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine to a risk of autism in children.
A study has found that contracting the measles virus decimated the protective antibodies responsible for remembering previous encounters with disease: effectively wiping the host’s immunity memory.
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