Measles cases hit 20-year high as Covid disrupts vaccinations, report finds

Number of people dying from the disease also increased by 50% since 2016, according to data from the WHO and CDC

A child with measles awaits treatment with his family at a healthcare facility in Central African Republic.
Central African Republic is one of just nine countries accounting for 73% of all globally reported cases in 2019. Photograph: James Oatway/MSF
Central African Republic is one of just nine countries accounting for 73% of all globally reported cases in 2019. Photograph: James Oatway/MSF
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Last modified on Fri 13 Nov 2020 08.58 EST

The number of measles cases worldwide surged to nearly 900,000 in 2019, the highest figure in more than two decades, underlining a significant U-turn in global progress to combat the disease.

Data from the World Health Organization (WHO) and US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that the number of people dying from measles also increased by 50% since 2016, with an estimated 207,500 deaths in 2019 alone.

The increase in reported cases was seen all across the globe, according to a report published on Friday, and reverses more than a decade of steady progress.

From 2000 to 2016, the number of reported measles cases decreased 84%, from 853,479 in 2000 to 132,490 in 2016. Between 2016 and 2019, however, the number of cases jumped 556% from 132,490 to 869,770, the highest reported number of cases since 1996, the data shows.

Authors point to a failure to vaccinate children on time as the main driver of the increases in cases and deaths. In 2019, just nine countries (Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Madagascar, North Macedonia, Samoa, Tonga and Ukraine) accounted for 73% of all globally reported cases.

“We know how to prevent measles outbreaks and deaths,” said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO’s director general.

“These data send a clear message that we are failing to protect children from measles in every region of the world. We must collectively work to support countries and engage communities to reach everyone, everywhere, with measles vaccine and stop this deadly virus.”

Reported cases so far this year indicate that the figures are lower than last year, but the health agencies said last week that more than 94 million children globally were still at risk of missing their vaccinations because of paused measles campaigns in 26 countries – a result of Covid-19.

Current global vaccination coverage with two doses against measles is far below the 95% or higher needed to prevent outbreaks and deaths, said Henrietta Fore, executive director of Unicef. “Before there was a coronavirus crisis, the world was grappling with a measles crisis, and it has not gone away.

“While health systems are strained by the Covid-19 pandemic, we must not allow our fight against one deadly disease to come at the expense of our fight against another. This means ensuring we have the resources to continue immunisation campaigns for all vaccine-preventable diseases, even as we address the growing Covid-19 pandemic.”

Before the pandemic, measles outbreaks were becoming a problem due in part to families’ caution about vaccines in some parts of the world, problems with supplies, and a lack of confidence in government.

Of countries with postponed planned 2020 vaccination campaigns, only eight (Brazil, CAR, DRC, Ethiopia, Nepal, Nigeria, Philippines and Somalia) had resumed after initial delays.

Unicef and the WHO estimate that $655m (£500m) is urgently needed to fill the gaps in vaccination services against measles and polio.