UN report says vaccine hesitancy helped spark worldwide spike in measles cases last year

The Hill/March 1, 2019

By Aris Folley

Vaccine hesitancy contributed to a spike in measles cases across the globe between 2017 and 2018, UNICEF said in a report released Friday.

The United Nations children's agency said that hesitancy toward vaccinations in addition to “poor health infrastructure, civil strife, low community awareness” and complacency have led to measles outbreaks in both developed and developing countries across the world recently.

The agency said the "alarming" surge in such cases presents a “growing threat to children.”

But Henrietta H. Fore, the executive director of the agency, said in the report that “these cases haven't happened overnight.”

"Just as the serious outbreaks we are seeing today took hold in 2018, lack of action today will have disastrous consequences for children tomorrow,” she continued. 

According to the agency’s calculations from data on 194 countries from the World Health Organization, Ukraine saw biggest surge in measles cases, with a 634 percent increase in cases of the disease from 2017 to 2018.

The Philippines ranked second for witnessing the largest increase in such cases, recording a 548 percent increase during the same time frame.

As the agency points out, measles is highly contagious and, once infected, there is “no specific treatment for measles, so vaccination is a life-saving tool for children.” 

In response to the outbreaks, the agency is teaming up with its partners to back governments’ efforts to “urgently reach millions of children in countries around the globe.” 

In Ukraine, the agency has already begun providing “ongoing support to accelerate routine immunization across the country and address vaccine hesitancy, including additional efforts to stop the most recent outbreak that has claimed 30 lives since 2017.”

With the help of UNICEF's support, the agency also said the Ministry of Health “launched an immunization drive at schools and clinics in the worst-hit Lviv region in western Ukraine, where negative attitudes toward immunization, and previous shortages in vaccine supply, have resulted in low vaccination rates,” in February.

The report comes as lawmakers in the United States attempt to tackle what has been considered "a growing public health threat” as measles outbreaks continue to grow across the nation.

According to the UN agency, measles cases in the US saw a 559 percent increase from 2017 to 2018. So far, New York, Texas and Washington have all seen outbreaks this year, data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has shown.

The CDC said those outbreaks have been linked to travelers from other countries bringing the disease to the U.S. and spreading it among communities where groups of people aren’t vaccinated.

“Measles is a highly contagious, life-threatening virus that was previously eliminated in the United States thanks to the success of the measles vaccine,” leaders of the House Energy and Commerce Committee said in a statement in February.

“Unfortunately, measles cases are on the rise as a consequence of the virus’s transmission among unvaccinated groups,” they added.

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