The Guardian newspaper reports falsehoods spread by ‘anti-vax’ movement in part to blame for backsliding in progress against potentially deadly illness, experts say.
Anti-vaccine scepticism, conflict and poor access fuelled a 50% increase in measles cases last year, according to the World Health Organization.
The UN health agency said the resurgence was happening at a global level, including in wealthy nations where vaccination coverage has historically been high.
“Our data is showing that there is a substantial increase in measles cases. We’re seeing this in all regions,” said Katherine
O’Brien, WHO’s director of immunisation and vaccines. “We’re having outbreaks that are protracted, that are sizeable and that are growing. This is not an isolated problem.”
The figures are a worrying sign of the vast reach of vaccine-scepticism, said Heidi Larson, director of the Vaccine Confidence Project at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. “It’s very serious. Historically measles outbreaks go up and down but this is a pretty dramatic increase.”
Mistrust of vaccines has been fuelled by social media, populist leaders and suspicion of experts. In France, Marine Le Pen, who leads the far-right National Rally, has opposed an expansion of the list of mandatory vaccinations, while in Italy, members of the Five Star Movement have previously suggested vaccines were unsafe.
In the US, Donald Trump has also expressed scepticism over vaccines, having invited Andrew Wakefield – the discredited gastroenterologist who has claimed the MMR vaccine was linked to autism – to his inaugural ball.
In poorer countries and marginalised communities, misinformation is often further complicated by conflict and a lack of access to healthcare.
The highly contagious disease can cause severe diarrhoea, pneumonia and vision loss. It can be fatal in some cases and remains an important cause of death among young children, according to the WHO. The disease can be easily prevented with two doses of a safe and efficient vaccine that has been in use since the 1960s, the UN agency says.
In 2018, measles caused approximately 136,000 deaths around the world, according to the WHO’s preliminary figures.
Up until 2016 the number of measles cases had been steadily declining but since 2017 the number had soared, according to Katrina Kretsinger, who leads WHO’s expanded immunisation programme.
“There are a number of outbreaks … which are driving some of these increases,” she told reporters,
pointing to significant outbreaks in Ukraine, Madagascar, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Chad and Sierra Leone.
In Madagascar alone, from October 2018 to 12 February 2019 a total of 66,278 cases and 922 deaths had been reported, the WHO said.
“We’re backsliding on the progress that has been made,” O’Brien said.
“And we’re not backsliding because we don’t have the tools to prevent this. We do have the tools to prevent measles. We’re backsliding because of the failure to vaccinate.”