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"Alarming" surge in measles cases in 98 countries, UNICEF says

Measles outbreak prompts debate

Cases of measles are surging to alarmingly high levels around the globe, a new report from UNICEF warns. Ten countries account for more than 74 percent of the total increase, and the disease has reemerged in several nations that had previously been declared measles-free.

Worldwide, 98 countries saw more cases of measles in 2018 than in 2017, reversing progress made against the highly preventable, but potentially deadly disease.

"This is a wake up call. We have a safe, effective and inexpensive vaccine against a highly contagious disease — a vaccine that has saved almost a million lives every year over the last two decades," Henrietta Fore, UNICEF's executive director, said in a statement. "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." 

The U.N. agency says the countries with the 10 highest increases in cases between 2017 and 2018 are:

  1. Ukraine
  2. Philippines
  3. Brazil
  4. Yemen
  5. Venezuela
  6. Serbia
  7. Madagascar
  8. Sudan
  9. Thailand
  10. France

In Ukraine alone, there were more than 35,000 cases of measles in 2018 and government officials say another 24,042 people were infected just in the first two months of 2019.

The Philippines has seen 12,736 cases of measles and 203 deaths tied to the disease so far this year, compared to 15,599 cases in the whole of 2018.

Measles is an extremely contagious disease, more so than Ebola, tuberculosis or influenza. In fact, the virus can live and be passed to someone up to two hours after an infected person has left the room. It is spread through the air when an infected person sneezes or coughs.

The disease is so contagious that 90 percent of people who are not immune will get sick if they're exposed to the virus.

One dose of the MMR vaccine — which protects against measles, mumps and rubella — is 93 percent effective, while two doses are about 97 percent effective.

However, once a person is infected, there is no specific treatment for measles, meaning vaccination is literally a life-saving tool. Serious complications can include pneumonia or brain swelling, leading to blindness or deafness, and in some cases death.

Overall vaccination rates of 90 to 95 percent are needed to provide "herd immunity," which helps keep outbreaks at bay and protect babies who are too young to be vaccinated and others who can't get the vaccine for medical reasons. 

UNICEF says poor public health infrastructure, civil strife, low community awareness, and vaccine hesitancy have all played a role in measles outbreaks in both developed and developing countries.

While the United States has not seen as big a jump in measles cases as some other countries in the report, outbreaks have been coming more common in recent years. In fact, the number of measles cases increased six-fold between 2017 and 2018, reaching 791 cases. 

Currently, there are measles outbreaks in New York and Washington state, which experts say are fueled by the anti-vaccination movement, as almost all of those who got sick had not been vaccinated.

"The overwhelming scientific evidence over many years and decades indicate that the vaccine, particularly the measles vaccine is very safe," Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, told CBSN AM last month.

Claims about health risks from vaccines are "based purely on fabrication," he continued. "That's been proven."

UNICEF says in order to fight measles it is issuing an urgent appeal to governments, health care providers, and parents to take action to contain the disease. It urges understanding that vaccines are safe and effective, and recommends vaccinating all children between the ages of 6 months to 5 years during outbreaks; training health workers to provide quality services; and strengthening immunization programs to deliver all life-saving vaccines.

"Almost all of these cases are preventable, and yet children are getting infected even in places where there is simply no excuse," Fore said. "Measles may be the disease, but, all too often, the real infection is misinformation, mistrust and complacency. We must do more to accurately inform every parent, to help us safely vaccinate every child."

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