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Measles Cases Rise Globally With Spikes In The Middle East, Europe And The Americas


Measles used to be one of the leading killers of children worldwide. Through the 1950s in the U.S. alone, three to four million people got sick with measles each year. Thousands died. Well, that changed dramatically when a measles vaccine became widely available in 1963. But the number of cases is on the rise again, with the most significant increases in Europe, the Middle East and the Americas. NPR's Jason Beaubien reports.

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: The World Health Organization says there were 6.7 million measles cases in 2017, a 30 percent increase from the year before. Measles deaths are also up significantly. In the Middle East, measles has spiked in war-torn Yemen. In Venezuela, it crept back as the economy and health care systems have collapsed. In Europe, Ukraine is getting hit the worst, but there have also been significant outbreaks in France, Italy, Serbia, and Greece. The WHO warns that anti-vaccination sentiments and social instability are coming together to allow measles to flourish. Heidi Larson is a professor of anthropology and risk at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. Much of her work is focused on attitudes towards vaccination.

HEIDI LARSON: Frankly, measles is a really fascinating window on what's going on, (laughter), historically as well as currently.

BEAUBIEN: She calls measles the canary in the coal mine. The virus is highly contagious. You need high vaccination rates to prevent outbreaks. And she says eruptions of measles are often the first sign that vaccination programs are breaking down. Larson's conducted several surveys around the globe and found that people's attitudes about immunization are increasingly political, volatile and not necessarily based on science.

LARSON: It's about emotions. It's about trust and distrust. It's about polarized society. And it always strikes me with vaccines how much more vitriolic, (laughter), debates have been around vaccines, more than just about any other health intervention.

BEAUBIEN: Larson thinks this is in part because vaccines are unlike any other tool in modern medicine. For them to work, nearly everyone has to take them. You give them to people who are healthy.

LARSON: I can't think of another intervention that touches every single individual on the planet, is regulated and managed by government, sometimes mandated, to be able to even go to school.

BEAUBIEN: And that heavy-handedness rubs some people the wrong way. But Larson's found that opposition to vaccination and new outbreaks, particularly the new measles outbreaks, go hand-in-hand. Jason Beaubien, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jason Beaubien is NPR's Global Health and Development Correspondent on the Science Desk.