These deaths occurred as measles cases surged globally, amidst devastating outbreaks in all regions.
Most deaths were among children under 5 years of age. Babies and very young children are at greatest risk from measles infections, with potential complications including pneumonia and encephalitis (a swelling of the brain), as well as lifelong disability – permanent brain damage, blindness or hearing loss.
Recently published evidence shows that contracting the measles virus can have further long-term health impacts, with the virus damaging the immune system’s memory for months or even years following infection.
This ‘immune amnesia’ leaves survivors vulnerable to other potentially deadly diseases, like influenza or severe diarrhea, by harming the body’s immune defenses.
“The fact that any child dies from a vaccine-preventable disease like measles is frankly an outrage and a collective failure to protect the world’s most vulnerable children,” said Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreysus, Director-General of the World Health Organization.
“To save lives, we must ensure everyone can benefit from vaccines – which means investing in immunization and quality health care as a right for all”, he maintained.
Measles is preventable through vaccination. However, vaccination rates globally have stagnated for almost a decade. WHO and UNICEF estimate that 86% of children globally received the first dose of measles vaccine through their country’s routine vaccination services in 2018, and fewer than 70% received the second recommended dose.
In 2018, the most affected countries – the countries with the highest incidence rate of the disease – were Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Liberia, Madagascar, Somalia and Ukraine. These five countries accounted for almost half of all measles cases worldwide.
“We’ve had a safe and effective measles vaccine for over 50 years. These estimates remind us that every child, everywhere needs – and deserves – this life-saving vaccine. We must turn this trend around and stop these preventable deaths by improving measles vaccine access and coverage”, said Dr. Robert Linkins, Branch Chief of Accelerated Disease Control and Vaccine Preventable Disease Surveillance at the CDC and Chair of the Measles & Rubella Initiative.