Nearly 170 million children worldwide, including more than 2.5 million in the United States and half a million in Britain, missed out on the first dose of the measles vaccine during the past eight years, opening the door to global outbreaks of the disease, a Unicef report said on Thursday.
“The ground for the global measles outbreaks we are witnessing today was laid years ago,” Henrietta Fore, the executive director of Unicef, the United Nations agency for children, said in a statement. “The measles virus will always find unvaccinated children,” she added.
Unicef cited a lack of access to the vaccine, poor health care, complacency, and fear or skepticism about vaccines in general as reasons for the disturbing trend.
The rise of the anti-vaccination movement, whose members are known as anti-vaxxers, in the United States and the rest of the world may be linked to the vaccine rejection, which Simon Stevens, the director of Britain’s National Health Service, called “a serious and growing public health time bomb.”
The rejection has been encouraged by the spread of false information, often on social media platforms, about supposed links between vaccines and autism, a theory roundly rejected by scientists and doctors.
“With measles cases almost quadrupling in England in just one year, it is grossly irresponsible for anybody to spread scare stories about vaccines, and social media firms should have a zero-tolerance approach towards this dangerous content,” Mr. Stevens said in a statement on Wednesday.
Measles, a highly infectious viral disease that is more contagious than Ebola or tuberculosis, is still an important cause of death among young children globally, the World Health Organization said.
More than 365 children die from measles every day, according to Unicef, and the disease can also cause blindness, deafness or brain damage.
Two doses of the same combined vaccine — for measles, mumps and rubella — are required to protect children from the disease. For a whole community to be safe, including babies and others who have yet to be vaccinated — so-called herd immunity — 95 percent immunization coverage is required. But global coverage is much lower: In 2017, worldwide coverage was reported at 85 percent for the first dose and 67 percent for the second, Unicef said.