Measles Deaths, by the Numbers

The World Health Organization has published some sobering statistics on measles around the world today. According to WHO,over 140,000 deaths were reported worldwide in 2018. That’s about one death every minute. And that’s last year. This year, 2019, has been a record year for measles outbreaks, so the numbers may very well eclipse 2018’s.

For example, look at Samoa, an island nation in the South Pacific. They are facing a measles epidemic there that has now claimed over 60 lives, with most of the deaths being children.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, where an Ebola epidemic has attracted a lot of attention, measles has killed more people than Ebola, with the latest number of deaths there surpassing 5,000. In the latest update, Ebola had killed around 2,200 people there.

And yet, there doesn’t seem to be much of a sense of urgency among the wealthy and powerful nations to do something decisive about measles. A worldwide campaign to immunize everyone who can get the vaccine, like it was done for smallpox over 40 years ago, could mean the eradication of measles. Measles does not have an animal host other than humans. The vaccine against measles is highly effective, with very few — and mild — side-effects. All that is standing in the way of this is public sentiment and political will.

Look also at the two crashes of Boeing 737-MAX planes in late 2018 and early 2019. In those two crashes, less than 400 people died, but the reaction was worldwide and very severe. All 737-MAX planes were grounded, with many of them sitting in storage now as a fix is still months away. People refused to get into those types of planes out of fear that they would crash. However, the 346 deaths constituted a tiny proportion of the billions of people who fly every year.

On September 11, 2001, four airplanes were hijacked and used as flying weapons of mass destruction against the Twin Towers in New York City, the Pentagon in Virginia, and a fourth plane crashing in a field in Pennsylvania. By the end of that day, 2,977 innocent victims had perished. From that day on, billions of dollars were invested in security systems for airplanes and at airports, billions more on the military response. According to the Watson Institute on International and Public Affairs at Brown University, between 770,000 and 800,000 people have died in the ensuing military conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, including about 26,000 troops from allied forces.

Yet here we have a situation where 140,000 people — most of them children — have perished from a disease that is nearly 100% preventable through vaccination; from a virus that can be eradicated in less than a generation if this hyper-connected world got its act together and spent just a fraction of the resources it has spent on war in the same time period. This is really a testament to human nature and what does and does not scare us. Billions of us fly in airplanes, so of course we’re going to be scared from seeing that a certain type of airplane is faulty. Also, all of the nearly 3,000 people killed in the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, were innocent bystanders, people who went to work that day with no intention of dying. That, and the whole situation from beginning to end was televised in real time to a worldwide audience. That’s scary. That’s a boogieman that deserves a full mobilization to bring under control.

What about measles? Anti-vaccine celebrities with millions of social media followers tell us that measles is a benign disease that “we all survived” in our childhood. They call it things like “a rite of passage,” or a “natural disease.” They do so as entire governments are suspended so that civil servants can aid in the response as dozens of children die. They write letters to Prime Ministers blaming the MMR vaccine for the epidemic when all the evidence points to wild type measles, and they blame the wrong brand of MMR vaccine because they’re that uninformed.

Only history will tell if we chased the wrong boogieman, but odds are that we did.

Author: René F. Najera, DrPH

I am the editor of the History of Vaccines site, an online project by the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. All opinions expressed on these blog posts are not necessarily those of the College or any of my employers. Check out my professional profile on LinkedIn: Feel free to follow me on Twitter: @EpiRen