Measles infections quadruple worldwide in past year, driven by anti-vaxxers
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Measles infections quadruple worldwide in past year, driven by anti-vaxxers

First quarter of 2019 sees 112,000 reported cases, up from 28,000 in same period last year; in US, ultra-Orthodox vaccine skeptics are epicenter of spread

A nurse prepares the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine at the Rockland County Health Department in Haverstraw, Rockland County, New York, on April 5, 2019. (Johannes Eisele/AFP)
A nurse prepares the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine at the Rockland County Health Department in Haverstraw, Rockland County, New York, on April 5, 2019. (Johannes Eisele/AFP)

Measles cases rose 300 percent worldwide through the first three months of 2019 compared to the same period last year, surging to over 112,000 reported cases — and likely many more unreported — the UN said Monday, as concern grows over the impact of anti-vaccination stigma.

In the US, the disease has spread more slowly, but is centered in the ultra-Orthodox community.

Measles, which is highly contagious, can be entirely prevented through a two-dose vaccine, but the World Health Organization (WHO) has in recent months sounded the alarm over slipping global vaccination rates.

“Preliminary global data shows that reported cases rose by 300 percent in the first three months of 2019, compared to the same period in 2018. This follows consecutive increases over the past two years,” it said in a statement.

“While this data is provisional and not yet complete, it indicates a clear trend. Many countries are in the midst of sizable measles outbreaks, with all regions of the world experiencing sustained rises in cases,” the WHO said.

The agency noted that only about one in 10 actual measles cases are reported, meaning the early trends for 2019 likely underestimate the severity of the outbreaks.

A sign warns people of measles in the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, NY, on April 10, 2019. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images/AFP)

So far this year, 170 countries have reported 112,163 measles cases to WHO. At this time last year, 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,” WHO said. “The disease has spread fast among clusters of unvaccinated people,” it added.

New York’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 have resisted vaccination.

The Brooklyn outbreak is believed to be driving a nationwide surge in infection that is on pace to set a record for most illnesses in 25 years.

US health officials on Monday said 555 measles cases have been confirmed so far this year, up from 465, as of a week ago.

A nurse prepares the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine at the Rockland County Health Department in Haverstraw, Rockland County, New York, on April 5, 2019. (Johannes Eisele/AFP)

While 20 states have reported cases, New York has been the epicenter. Nearly two-thirds of all cases have been in New York, and 85% of the latest week’s cases came from the state. Most of the New York cases have been unvaccinated people in the ultra-Orthodox community.

The 2019 tally is already the most since 2014, when 667 were reported. The most before that was 963 cases in 1994.

But the disease is likely to hit hardest in parts of the world where health authorities’ response will be weakest. The WHO said that the most dramatic rise in cases — a 700% increase compared to last year — has been reported in Africa, many parts of which have weaker vaccination coverage than other regions.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that all children get two doses of measles vaccine.

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