Measles cases hit 23-year high in 2019, another spike feared as COVID-19 rages on

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Measles Outbreak
Face of boy with measles. Photo courtesy of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)

Cases of childhood disease measles reached the highest level in 23 years in 2019, the World Health Organization (WHO) and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said in a joint report on Thursday.

All WHO regions witnessed an increase in cases, pushing the global figure of infections to 869,770 last year. The death toll in 2019 was also 50 percent higher than a historic low recorded in 2016.

WHO said countries that have recently suffered large measles outbreaks include the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Madagascar, Central African Republic (CAR), Georgia, Kazakhstan, North Macedonia, Samoa, Tonga, and Ukraine.

The United States also experienced a measles outbreak in 2019. The CDC recorded 1,282 cases in 31 states last year. The agency said it received 12 confirmed cases from seven jurisdictions as of October 15, 2020.

COVID-19 threatens another spike in measles cases

Health authorities warned that the raging coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic is threatening another spike in measles cases by curtailing the global vaccination program.

There have been fewer cases this year, but the pandemic has further set back vaccination efforts. More than 94 million people are at risk of missing measles vaccines in 26 countries that have delayed their vaccination campaigns, including many countries grappling with a deluge of COVID-19 infections.

“The big issue is not actually large holes in coverage, it’s the stalling in coverage”, Natasha Crowcroft, senior technical advisor on measles and rubella at the WHO, told a news conference in Geneva.

“It’s a bit like, you know, tinder for a forest fire, it reaches a point where an outbreak really takes off. And that’s what we saw in 2019, with the almost explosive outbreaks in areas that have had inadequate coverage over many years”, Dr. Crowcroft said.