Measles has been making headlines in the United States and abroad. U.S. measles cases in 2011 were the highest in 15 years, nearly four times higher than the typical year. Meanwhile, a recent study in the medical journal The Lancet revealed that global deaths due to measles are down, though still not as low as health experts would like. Finally, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced an expanded initiative to ensure that number continues to fall.
Case Counts Skyrocket in United States
The Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, a publication of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), announced on April 20 that the United States faced 222 cases of measles in 2011. For perspective, the annual median number of cases between 2000 and 2010 was just 60.
A combination of international travel and refusals of routine measles vaccination drove this resurgence in an officially eliminated disease (one that is no longer present in the population year-round). In fact, fully two-thirds of the cases either caught the disease while in another country (known as an imported case) or were linked to an imported case. The remaining cases showed virologic evidence of genotypes known to circulate abroad; these cases are probably linked to an imported case that was never reported.
The U.S. cases reflect certain global trends. For instance, half of the imported cases had recently traveled in Europe, with more cases linked to France than any other European country. The European region is in the midst of a measles outbreak, reporting over 25,000 cases across the continent and over half of those cases in France.
The report highlighted the importance of sustained measles vaccination. When a disease like measles is eliminated, individuals tend to underestimate the threat it poses because they don’t commonly see its effects. However, measles is an extremely virulent and dangerous, even deadly disease.
Global Measles Deaths
Meanwhile, an article in The Lancet reported global deaths due to measles dropped 74 percent over the past decade.
Researchers from WHO, Penn State, and CDC used new modeling techniques to estimate measles deaths over the past 10 years. They found mortality dropped from 535,300 deaths in 2000 to 139,300 deaths in 2010. By incorporating country surveillance data, instead of relying on vaccination coverage as an indicator of disease burden, they argue their estimates are more accurate than previous studies.
While the drop certainly shows commendable progress, it still falls short of WHO’s target of reducing measles deaths by 90 percent from 2000 to 2010.
The Future of Measles
Accompanying the news of the drop in measles deaths, WHO also rolled out a new initiative to battle measles and rubella. Originally conceived as the Measles Initiative, the project now also targets rubella and has been renamed as the Measles & Rubella Initiative. The program aims to reduce measles deaths by 95 percent by 2015 (compared to 2000 mortality) and to achieve measles and rubella elimination in four out of the five WHO regions.