More than 115,000 cases of measles have been diagnosed in Madagascar, marking the largest outbreak in the nation’s history. Some 1,200 people have died from the highly contagious disease, the Associated Press reports, and children, especially those under age 15, are disproportionately affected.
And the World Health Organization (WHO) warns that only 1 in 10 cases of measles are being reported, meaning the outbreak is probably much worse than initially reported.
One mother named Nifaliana Razaijafisoa walked 9 miles holding her 6-month-old son in her arms to receive medical treatment in Madagascar's rural area of Iarintsena. After a nurse confirmed that her child had measles, the stricken mother told the AP, "I'm so scared for him because in the village everyone says it kills babies.”
The African island nation is far from the only location affected. Cases worldwide have spiked 300% so far in 2019, according to the WHO, which claims anti-vaccine campaigns spread on social media have deterred families from immunizing their children. In the United States, measles was considered eradicated in 2000, but cases have again been on the rise. In New York City, 300 people were diagnosed in an ultra-Orthodox Jewish section of Brooklyn, where many of residents shun technology and the advice of doctors outside their religion — leading the mayor to recently declare a public health emergency. The WHO also reports outbreaks in Thailand, Israel, and Tunisia.
Preliminary global data on #measles shows that reported cases rose by 300% in the first three months of 2019, compared to the same period in 2018. This follows consecutive increases over the past two years. https://t.co/fY27Rlzlqw#VaccinesWorkpic.twitter.com/oImdYl4L9G— World Health Organization (WHO) (@WHO) April 15, 2019
In Madagascar, the issue is not anti-vaccine campaigns, but that poor families do not have access to the measles vaccine. To prevent outbreaks, at least 90% of the population needs to be immunized, but only 58% have been immunized on Madagascar’s main island.
A WHO doctor says that new cases are slowing down in Madagascar — but it will be hard to eradicate the disease due to the fact that half of all children on the island are malnourished.
“Malnutrition is the bed of measles,” says Dr. Dossou Vincent Sodjinou, the WHO epidemiologist in Madagascar. The son of Razaijafisoa, the mother in Iarintsena, only weighs 11 pounds at 6 months old, which is 64% less than most infants his age in America.
“This is the case for almost all children with measles who have come here,” Lantonirina Rasolofoniaina, a health center volunteer, told the AP.
Lalatiana Ravonjisoa, a vegetable vendor, lost her 5-month-old son from the disease.
“I had five children. They all had measles. For the last, I did not go to see the doctor because I did not have money,” she told the AP.
Many families in the impoverished nation do not have access to clinics, which are few and far between, and they cannot afford doctors or medicine. Many treatment centers are short-staffed and have few resources to help patients.
“I gave my baby the leftover medications from his big brother to bring down the fever,” Ravonjisoa said.
While the baby’s health at first seemed to be improving, he later developed breathing problems — a typical symptom for the disease, which is spread by coughing, sneezing, infected surfaces, or other close contact. Ravonjisoa was devastated to find his feet cold the following morning. He had died overnight.
Officials are working to contain the spread of the disease; the WHO kicked off its third mass vaccination campaign in Madagascar in March. The organization hopes to reach 7.2 million children aged 6 months to 9 years old.
“But immunization is not the only strategy for the response to this epidemic. We still need resources for care, monitoring, and social mobilization,” Sodjinou, the WHO epidemiologist, told the AP.