Measles ‘misinformation campaigns’ through social media having disastrous consequences

epa08029088 Kate O'Brien, Director of the Department of Immunization, Vaccines and Biologicals at the WHO speaks about the new global mortality figures for measles for 2018 and update on 2019, during a press conference, at the European headquarters of the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, 27 November 2019. EPA-EFE/MARTIAL TREZZINI

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Measles deaths and infections in 2019 are set to “substantially exceed” last year’s toll when more than 142,000 people died from the preventable disease, the World Health Organization (WHO) said.

In a warning over dangerously low vaccination levels and large outbreaks in several countries – spurred on by social media “misinformation campaigns” – the UN health agency insisted that anything less than 95 per cent coverage risked sparking an outbreak.

In the Pacific island nation of Samoa, just 31 per cent of the island’s people have immunity against measles, the WHO said, highlighting the impact there of a single anti-vaccine group’s social media messaging.

The situation has resulted in a major health crisis, with hospitals and clinics reportedly overwhelmed and struggling to treat the most vulnerable – children under the age of five – and other patients with chronic illnesses including diabetes.

More than 60 mainly babies and young children have died since the epidemic began, with over 4,200 recorded cases, and on Thursday the Government ordered a national shutdown ahead of a mass vaccination campaign for the entire population.

“Misinformation that is spread through social media channels is really affecting the decisions of parents around whether they are going to vaccinate their children and the impact is that children are developing measles and some of them are dying,” said Dr Kate O’Brien, WHO’s Director of Immunization, Vaccines and Biologicals.

Today, average global vaccine coverage against measles is around 86 per cent – up from 72 per cent in the year 2000 – a measure that WHO has credited with saving more than 23 million lives during that time.

Although this is a major public health achievement – and the reason why measles deaths since the turn of the century decreased from 535,000 to 142,300 last year, little progress has been made on improving vaccine coverage “in about a decade”, Dr O’Brien explained.

While global measles deaths have decreased since the year 2000, the worst impacts – and highest number of fatalities – are in countries “where many children have persistently missed out on vaccination”, particularly in sub-Saharan African States.

By region, WHO estimates that the African region saw 1,759,000 total cases and 52,600 deaths last year.

Other regions:

  • Eastern Mediterranean: 2,852,700 cases and 49,000 deaths
  • European region: 861,800 cases and 200 deaths
  • Southeast Asia: 3,803,800 cases and 39,100 deaths
  • Western Pacific: 408,400 cases and 1,300 deaths
  • Americas: 83,500 cases

 

In 2018, the countries with the highest number of infections were the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Liberia, Madagascar, Somalia and Ukraine, according to the WHO report.

Together, these five countries accounted for almost half of all measles cases worldwide.

In the DRC, which is battling insecurity linked to armed groups and an Ebola virus outbreak that has claimed more than 2,000 lives, its ongoing measles outbreak is the largest outbreak ever witnessed globally, with more than 5,000 deaths since January this year.

According to the UN Children’s Fund, UNICEF, over 90 per cent of the measles victims – 4,500 – have been children under the age of five.

Wealthier countries have also been battling outbreaks, WHO added.

These include the United States – which reported its highest number of cases in 25 years – while four European nations – Albania, Czechia, Greece and the United Kingdom – lost their “measles elimination status” in 2018 following protracted outbreaks.

This happens if measles re-enters a country after it has been declared eliminated, and if transmission is sustained continuously in the country for more than a year.

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