Measles might be preparing for a comeback tour.
Unlike Ebola, measles easily leaps between people. Virus-filled droplets linger, floating in the air or coating a coffee table for up to two hours after a contagious person coughs or sneezes. If you're susceptible to the disease and you breathe that air or touch a contaminated surface and then rub your eyes, you're screwed. Measles infects 90 percent of those who are not immune.
And it's not just a week of misery that results. Before a vaccine was developed in the 1960s, measles caused more than 2 million deaths per year, typically when the virus severely infects the lungs or brain.
That's why the globe has tried so hard since 2000 to eliminate the disease. Since 2000, vaccination initiatives have prevented 15.6 million deaths, mostly of children under age 5.
So measles had been on a steady decline. But since 2007, the numbers have stayed about the same. Last year, the global death tally jumped to 145,000 deaths versus 122,000 in 2012, according to a new report published by the World Health Organization.
That means nearly 400 kids die from measles each day. In 2013, more than 70 percent of measles deaths were confined to six countries: the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Ethiopia, India, Indonesia, Nigeria and Pakistan. Even survivors can pay a price, with long-term consequences like blindness, brain damage and hearing loss. The West Pacific is losing ground, too, says the report. For instance, The Philippines has recorded a tremendous outbreak in 2014 with more than 50,000 cases.
One reason for this trend is the global recession.
Even though a measles vaccine costs only $1 per child in developing countries, the economic downturn has taken a toll. Rather than hold a measles vaccination campaign every two to three years, some countries stretch every to five years, says James Goodson, a measles epidemiologist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention who coauthored last week's report. The result is a greater pool of susceptible children — and more cases.
"We've seen a large outbreak in the DRC for example that started in 2010 and continued through 2012, as a result of a delayed campaign," Goodson says.
The other hitch has been the infamous anti-vaccine movement. Back in 1998, an article by a British doctor named Andrew Wakefield tied the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine to autism. The article has been debunked over and over and Wakefield lost his medical license, yet some parents never stopped believing it.
Europe is now reporting measles cases in older children and young adults — and Goodson blames the article, as do British officials. In early 2012, the U.K. recorded 2,000 cases among adolescents, ages 10-16, the highest number in almost two decades. To quell future outbreaks in teens, a nationwide vaccination campaign was launched, which cut cases by 80 percent the following year.
The U.S. is also breaking measles records. This year has seen 603 cases so far, more than in any single year in the past two decades. William Moss, an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins University, says some parents won't vaccinate their children no matter what is said, but others may have forgotten the risks of measles and so are swayed by anti-vaccine hokum.
WHO's plan had been to eliminate measles altogether by 2020. That goal is now in peril. "For example, the African region, Eastern Mediterranean region, and the European region are not on track to achieve their measles elimination target by 2020," Goodson says.
Moss doesn't expect measles to rebound to pre-2000 levels but warns: "Unless we make further investments into vaccine campaigns, we'll continue to see large outbreaks."