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Anti-vaxx movement complicit in 140,000 global measles deaths in 2018, mostly in children

Published on 06/12/19 at 12:25pm

Over 140,000 people died from measles last year, with most of them being children under five, according to World Health Organization (WHO) and the US Centers for Diseases Control and Prevention.

Several countries lost their measles elimination status in 2018. This included the UK, Albania, the Czech Republic and Greece, while the US has been reporting its highest number of cases for 25 years. This rise is in large part due to the prominence of anti-vaxx misinformation campaigns.

Anti-vaccine movements have been around for centuries but the modern incarnation has its roots in the 1990s. A study by Andrew Wakefield, now widely debunked, said there was a link between vaccines and ‘contracting’ autism. This false study has been parroted and spread by notable individuals like Robert DeNiro, Robert F Kennedy Jr and President Donald Trump.

Having a US President who often leans towards being a vaccine sceptic, has helped garner legitimacy for a movement based on manufactured evidence, and the results have been devastating. Other anti-vaccine movements use isolated cases of vaccines causing death to spread misinformation.

One of the worst recent examples of a measles epidemic is Samoa, where 39 people have died since October. The World Health Organisation has blamed an anti-vaccine campaign for most of the casualties. In 2015, immunisation rates were measured at 84% but in 2018 it had fallen dramatically to 31%.

In global terms, measles is making a comeback due to not enough children being vaccinated. In order to stop measles spreading, 95% of children need to get the two doses of the vaccine. But the figures have hovered around 86% for the first jab, and 69% for the second.

Anti-vaccine misinformation campaigns are not the only reason for the lack of immunisation in children. In poorer countries vaccines simply cannot be accessed. The worst affected last year were the Democratic Republic of Congo, Liberia, Madagascar, Somalia and Ukraine. Most of these regions have either been hit by military conflict or outbreaks of diseases like Ebola, which have put a strain on health services.

Professor Heidi Larson, from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, said: “These numbers are staggering. Measles is the most contagious of all vaccine-preventable disease threats and should be a wake-up call.”

It looks likely the number of measles deaths will increase, with 413,000 reported cases by mid-November this year compared to 353,000 for the whole of last year.

Conor Kavanagh

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