Measles was once a common childhood illness. In the early 1900s, the disease killed an average of 6,000 Americans each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. However, after the measles vaccine was introduced in 1963, cases dropped drastically — so much so the United States declared the disease eliminated in 2000. Unfortunately, that is no longer the case, and the number of measles cases is now on the rise.
In fact, according to the CDC, there was a 30 percent increase between 2016 and 2017.
Health officials warned this could set back the fight against measles by decades.
“The increase in measles cases is deeply concerning,” Dr. Seth Berkley, CEO of Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, said in a statement. He also noted that it’s not surprising, as there has been a global drop in vaccination rates. According to the World Health Organization, at least 95 percent of a population must have immunity in order to control the spread of measles; however, in many countries, these numbers are at 85 percent or less. And this could have dire effects.
“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 immunization coverage in Africa are combining to bring about a global resurgence of measles after years of progress,” Berkley said.
And Dr. Soumya Swaminathan, deputy director general for program at the WHO, agrees. “Without urgent efforts to increase vaccination coverage and identify populations with unacceptable levels of under-, or unimmunized children, we risk losing decades of progress in protecting children and communities against this devastating, but entirely preventable disease,” she said in the same statement.
To counteract this problem, both the WHO and CDC want sustained investment in immunization systems, particularly for those living in poor, marginalized communities. The agencies are also hoping to build public support for immunizations by tackling falsehoods and misinformation.
That said, regardless of what is done, it seems officials agree that existing strategies need to change.
“More effort needs to go into increasing routine immunization coverage and strengthening health systems,” Berkley said. “Otherwise we will continue chasing one outbreak after another.”