‘Staggering’ rise in global measles cases last year, say leading health organizations

There was a “staggering” annual rise in measles cases and deaths in 2022, according to a new report from the World Health Organization (WHO) and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Cases jumped by 18 per cent to an estimated nine million, and deaths rose to 136,000 — mostly among children — the health agencies said in a joint statement on Thursday.

There were large or disruptive outbreaks in 37 countries last year, the majority in Africa, compared with 22 in 2021.

“The increase in measles outbreaks and deaths is staggering, but unfortunately not unexpected given the declining vaccination rates we’ve seen in the past few years,” said John Vertefeuille, director of the CDC’s global immunization division.

The COVID-19 pandemic massively disrupted routine immunization efforts worldwide, and the bounce back has been slow.

One of the most contagious viruses

Measles is one of the most contagious viruses in the world but is preventable by two doses of vaccine. However, 22 million children worldwide missed their first dose in 2022 and an additional 11 million their second dose, a slight improvement on the previous year.

However, the situation has not recovered at all since the pandemic in low-income countries, where the risk of dying of measles is highest, WHO said. Coverage rates there are at 66 per cent on average, compared with the 95 per cent the United Nations agency says is needed to prevent outbreaks.

That is an “alarm bell for action” for countries and all global health stakeholders, said WHO’s director of immunization, Kate O’Brien. 

In Canada, there are only a handful of current active measles cases, and 10 cases in total have been reported so far in 2023, the latest federal data shows.

However, the country also faced a drop in routine vaccinations during the COVID-19 pandemic, including immunizations for measles.

Data from Ottawa Public Health, for example, showed that in that city alone, about 15,000 children missed receiving a dose of the MMR or MMR-V vaccine between 2020 and 2022.


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