Half of the World Is at High Risk of Measles

More than half the world's countries will be at high risk of measles outbreaks by the end of the year, the World Health Organization (WHO) warned, urging governments to take urgent action to protect children.

Measles has been on the rise across most regions, primarily due to missed vaccinations during the COVID-19 pandemic when health systems were overwhelmed.

"What we are worried about is this year, 2024, we've got these big gaps in our immunization programs, and if we don't fill them really quickly with the vaccine, measles will just jump into that gap," the WHO's Natasha Crowcroft, a Senior Technical Adviser on Measles and Rubella, told a press briefing on Tuesday.

Crowcroft cited data suggesting that more than half of all the countries in the world are going to be at high or very high risk of measles outbreaks by the end of this year.

Measles had been eradicated in the United States in 2000. However, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) notified healthcare workers last month about the rise in cases, primarily among children and adolescents who did not receive the measles vaccine.

Globally, measles cases increased by 79% from 2022, with more than 306,000 cases reported last year, according to the WHO. Meanwhile, deaths grew by 43% in 2022, exceeding 130,000 deaths due to the disease.

"We would anticipate an increase in deaths in 2023 as well," Crowcroft said.

Who is at risk of measles?

Measles is a highly infectious viral disease that spreads when an infected person breathes, coughs, or sneezes. In some, the infection can cause complications and even death.

The disease typically begins with a high fever, cough, runny nose, and red, watery eyes. Two to three days after symptoms begin, tiny white spots, called Koplik spots, may appear inside the mouth.

Three to five days after the onset of symptoms, a rash breaks out. First, flat red spots appear on the face at the hairline and then spread downward to the neck, trunk, arms, legs, and feet. Small raised bumps may also appear on top of the flat red spots.

Measles can be severe across all age groups, but these populations are at higher risk of developing complications:

  • Children under 5 years old
  • Adults over 20 years
  • Pregnant women
  • Immunocompromised individuals

Common measles complications include ear infections, diarrhea, pneumonia, encephalitis (inflammation of the brain), and death.

When should I get the measles vaccine?

The best way to protect yourself from getting sick with measles or spreading the virus to others is vaccination.

It may also protect against severe disease, as about one in five unvaccinated people in the U.S. who get measles are hospitalized.

The first dose of the MMR vaccine that protects against measles, mumps, and rubella is recommended at the age of 12-15 months. It should be followed by the second dose between the ages of four to six years old.

Teenagers and adults with no evidence of immunity should get the measles vaccine as soon as possible.


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