A global wave of measles cases fed by conspiracies and misinformation has health officials worried

The Western Pacific region, which includes China, Australia, Pacific islands and large parts of Southeast Asia, is the only part of the world where vaccination rates against measles are on the rise (the Philippines being the exception), bucking the global trend. In many of those places, previous measles outbreaks have sharpened parents’ minds to the risks of the virus, and have limited resistance against vaccinations.

But in the wealthier countries where warnings of the virus are more likely to trigger a shrug of parents’ shoulders than real concern, the virus is returning or becoming more common once again.

World Health Organization official Martin Friede warned last November that “we are seeing sustained measles transmission in countries that had not previously seen measles transmission for many years.”

One reason for the global resurgence of measles could be complacency on the part of parents who consider measles to be among the least likely possible illnesses to affect their kids. New Zealand, for instance, celebrated the official elimination of measles in the country about two years ago. But international air travel can carry viruses from one country to another within hours, and the country is now also fighting a renewed outbreak of the virus.

Noack notes that “In some places, complacency over vaccinations has been accompanied by outright rejection of the scientific evidence on measles vaccines that has saved over 21 million lives since 2000, according to the WHO. Unsubstantiated conspiracy theories on supposedly negative side effects of vaccinations, either against measles or in a broader context, have gained momentum in some communities, in the United States and other countries.”

He concludes:

Deliberately spreading misinformation on vaccines to suggest that citizens are being lied to by their leaders has become a go-to recipe of some populist politicians, too. After years of railing against vaccines and even proposing a law against them in 2015, Italy’s Five Star Movement is now part of the country’s government and has softened its stance. But during its campaign against vaccines, coverage fell far below targets. The misinformation campaign may have cost lives: Last November, Italy had to declare a measles emergency after four people died and more than 4,000 fell ill.

In other countries, politicians would be glad to be able to provide vaccines. As Ukraine’s confrontation with Russia escalated in 2014, access to health care deteriorated and immunization rates immediately plummeted. Vaccines became hard to come by and the conflict disrupted vaccination routines, especially in the country’s east. Almost half a decade on, vaccination rates are increasing again — but over 50,000 cases last year show that it takes only a temporary drop in vaccination coverage for the disease to spread again years later.

That’s bad news for parents in Washington and around the world.

Read the article: Rick Noack, “A global wave of measles cases fed by conspiracies and misinformation has health officials worried,” Washington Post (8 February 2019)