The World Health Organization (WHO) has raised alarm over a 300 percent increase in the case of measles globally in the first quarter of 2019 compared with last year.
The statement by the United Nations’ health agency comes as health experts in various parts of the world blame a growing anti-vaccination movement for the rise in outbreaks of the highly contagious but preventable disease.
The WHO said on Monday that the early trends for 2019 likely underestimated the severity of the outbreaks since only about one in 10 actual measles cases was reported.
“Many countries are in the midst of sizeable measles outbreaks, with all regions of the world experiencing sustained rises in cases,” the WHO said.
So far this year, 170 countries have reported 112,163 measles cases to WHO. At this time in 2018, 163 countries had reported 28,124 cases.
“Spikes in case numbers have also occurred in countries with high overall vaccination coverage, including the United States,” the WHO said.
“The disease has spread fast among clusters of unvaccinated people,” it added.
New York City’s mayor declared a public health emergency in parts of Brooklyn last week after a measles outbreak emerged in an ultra-Orthodox Jewish community, where some had resisted vaccination on religious grounds.
The WHO said that the most dramatic rise in cases – a 700-percent increase compared with last year – has been reported on the African continent, which has weaker vaccination coverage than other regions.
Measles – an airborne infection causing fever, coughing and rashes that can be deadly in rare cases – had been officially eliminated in many countries with advanced healthcare systems.
But the so-called anti-vax movement – driven by fraudulent claims linking the MMR vaccine against measles, mumps and rubella, and risk of autism in children – has gained traction.
Repeated studies – the most recent involving more than 650,000 children monitored for more than a decade – have shown that there is no such link.
But according to the WHO, global coverage for the first vaccine dose has been “stalled” at 85 percent, while 67 percent of people have received the second dose.
Calls have mounted in several countries to make measles vaccinations mandatory, including in Germany.
Australia earlier this month launched a major education campaign to encourage residents to get vaccinated.
Turning the tide against measles will require “effective public-facing communication and engagement on the critical importance of vaccination, and the dangers of the diseases they prevent”, the WHO said.