FILE - A notice for a health alert about measles is posted on the door of a medical facility in Seattle, Washington, Feb. 13, 2019.
FILE - A notice for a health alert about measles is posted on the door of a medical facility in Seattle, Washington, Feb. 13, 2019.

GENEVA - The World Health Organization (WHO) says that measles outbreaks and deaths are surging globally, putting years of progress made in reducing the killer disease at risk. The WHO is calling for urgent action to stop the spread of the highly contagious but fully preventable disease. 

State Rep. Paul Harris R-Vancouver, center, talks to reporters, Feb. 8, 2019, following a public hearing at the Capitol in Olympia, Wash., on a bill that would remove parents' ability to claim a philosophical exemption to opt school-age children out
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The WHO says a safe, effective vaccine, which has been around for 50 years, has protected millions of children. But WHO Director of Immunization, Vaccines and Biologicals Katherine O’Brien says progress is at risk because of the failure to vaccinate many children in all regions of the world.  

“Measles as a virus is one of the most contagious infections that there is.  For every case of measles that occurs in a setting where people are not immune, nine to 10 additional cases will occur simply because of exposure to that case,” she said.

O’Brien notes measles is spread by respiratory droplets that can live on surfaces for hours. Therefore, it is not necessary to have direct contact with an infected person to get sick.

The WHO says 229,000 cases of measles were reported worldwide last year. But it says the number of reported cases represents less than 10 percent of actual cases.  So, millions of cases are occurring.

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Africa is one of the regional hot spots. Katrina Kertsinger, a WHO medical officer in the Expanded Program on Immunization, says there have been measles outbreaks of varying magnitude in all countries in this region.

“Madagascar is currently experiencing an outbreak from a period from 2018 to present.  There is over 66,000 cases that have been reported in that country alone…I personally was in Madagascar several weeks ago.  I can say as a clinician how heartbreaking it is to be in a context where there are measles cases which are entirely preventable,” Kertsinger said.  

The WHO says many children in poor countries are not being vaccinated because they live in marginalized areas where clinics are not easily reached.  

In wealthier countries, it says parents sometimes choose not to have their children immunized because of false claims that the vaccine is dangerous.