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Global measles crisis: Cases nearly doubled in 2023

Measles, a once-declining infectious disease, is experiencing a worrying resurgence. New data from the World Health Organization (WHO) reveals a dramatic increase in measles cases worldwide, raising concerns about the potential for a major public health crisis.

Measles cases

Global measles cases nearly doubled in 2023 compared to 2022: This startling increase in cases indicates that measles is spreading at an alarming rate. It underscores the urgency of addressing factors contributing to the decline in vaccination coverage.

The number of countries experiencing large, disruptive measles outbreaks has tripled in the past year: This means more countries are struggling to contain measles outbreaks, which significantly strains their healthcare systems and puts countless lives at risk. The increasing geographical spread makes global containment much more difficult.

In 2024, nearly half of all reported cases originated in the WHO European Region: This surprising statistic reveals that even regions previously making progress towards measles elimination are now experiencing major setbacks. It highlights the need to strengthen immunization programs and address vaccine hesitancy across all regions.

Overall, these figures paint a grim picture of the global measles situation. If unchecked, this trend has the potential to undo decades of progress and trigger a devastating global health crisis.

The measles virus

Measles is a highly contagious viral illness that primarily affects the respiratory system. It presents with symptoms such as:

  • High fever: A significant increase in body temperature, often reaching 104°F (40°C) or higher.
  • Characteristic rash: A widespread, red, or reddish-brown rash that usually starts on the face and head before spreading to the rest of the body. Individual spots may join together, giving the skin a blotchy appearance.
  • Runny nose: A persistent discharge from the nose, indicating inflammation in the nasal passages.
  • Red, watery eyes: Eyes may become bloodshot and produce excessive tears due to irritation and inflammation.

In some cases, measles can progress into severe and potentially life-threatening complications. These can include:

  • Pneumonia: An infection of the lungs that causes inflammation and difficulty breathing. This is a common complication of measles, especially in young children.
  • Blindness: Measles can cause permanent vision loss due to damage to the eyes or optic nerves.
  • Encephalitis: Inflammation of the brain, which can result in seizures, neurological problems, and even death.
  • Death In rare cases, measles can be fatal, particularly in young children with weakened immune systems.

Measles vulnerability in children

Children under five years of age are particularly susceptible to measles and its complications. Their immune systems are still developing, making them more likely to experience severe illness, hospitalization, and long-term health problems.

In severe cases, complications like pneumonia, blindness, and even death can occur. Children under five are especially vulnerable to these complications.

Factors contributing to the resurgence

Several factors have likely played a role in the rising measles cases:

Declining vaccination rates

  • Misinformation and vaccine hesitancy: The spread of inaccurate or misleading information about the safety and effectiveness of measles vaccines has eroded public trust and reduced vaccination acceptance in some communities.
  • Impact on herd immunity: When a large portion of a population is immune to a disease (through vaccination), it becomes very difficult for the virus to spread, protecting even those who are unvaccinated. Falling vaccination rates undermine this ‘herd immunity’, increasing the risk of significant outbreaks.

COVID-19 pandemic disruptions

  • Focus on COVID-19 mitigation: Public health resources and attention were understandably diverted to combating the COVID-19 pandemic, leading to temporary disruptions in routine healthcare services, including childhood immunization programs.
  • Missed vaccinations and immunity gaps: Children who missed their scheduled measles vaccinations during the pandemic have developed gaps in their immunity, leaving them susceptible to infection and creating a larger pool of potential carriers of the virus.

Global instability

  • Disruptions to healthcare systems: Conflicts, natural disasters, and other humanitarian crises often cause severe disruptions to essential healthcare services. Immunization programs frequently become casualties in these situations, as resources are diverted and access to care becomes challenging.
  • Vulnerability of displaced populations: People who have been displaced due to conflict or crises are often living in crowded, unsanitary conditions with limited access to healthcare. These conditions are ripe for the rapid transmission of measles and other infectious diseases.

The path to elimination under threat

“Significant progress was made toward measles elimination in recent years. However, the current surge in cases jeopardizes these gains,” noted Dr. Patrick O’Connor of the WHO. He emphasized the importance of maintaining high, consistent, and equitable vaccination coverage to prevent future outbreaks.

While there are challenges, Professor Hanna Nohynek from the Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare highlighted the success of the Americas region, which achieved measles elimination in 2016. Their strategy focused on intensive vaccination campaigns, strengthening routine immunization, and robust surveillance.

Recommendations for action

To reverse the measles resurgence, experts emphasize the following interventions:

  • Prioritize vaccination: Ensure you and your family are fully vaccinated against measles according to recommended immunization schedules.
  • Promote reliable information: Share accurate, science-based information about the safety and efficacy of measles vaccines. Counter misinformation that fuels vaccine hesitancy.
  • Support global vaccination efforts: Donate to or advocate for organizations working to improve access to vaccines in low- and middle-income countries.

Measles is a preventable disease. By working together and prioritizing vaccination, we can protect ourselves and communities worldwide from this potentially devastating illness.


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