Measles cases rose by more than 30% in 2017, and vaccine sceptics in wealthy countries and low immunisation rates in Africa are largely to blame, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported in 2018.

During 2017, 190,000 infections and 110,000 deaths were officially registered around the world, but the United Nations health agency estimates that the true number of cases was 6.7 million.

Most of the patients who died were children.

European residents have started to underestimate the risks of the disease, which can lead to dangerous brain swelling and blindness.

Some parents have wrongly linked measles to side effects such as a heightened risk of autism, according to the WHO.

Italy’s populist government, for example, is backed by parties, which have flirted with the anti-vaxxer (anti-vaccination) movement and has moved to limit compulsory vaccination.

Israel, meanwhile, witnessed its worst measles outbreak in late 2018 in a decade.

“Vaccinations are one of society’s greatest achievements and one of the main reasons that people live about 30 years longer than a century ago,” says Matthew Hornsey from the University of Queensland, Australia.

And yet people who have anti-vaccination attitudes continue to act on their “emotional and gut responses” rather than act on evidence cited to them, the vaccination researcher says.

Hornsey’s research, published in February 2018, showed that people who believe conspiracy theories, for example about the deaths of Princess Diana or John F Kennedy, are more likely to think that vaccines are unsafe.

However, some researchers say we shouldn’t be too quick to blame children’s parents on rising infection figures.

“It’s not all about the parents,” says Heather MacDougall, history professor at Canada’s University of Waterloo and co-author of a recent study on vaccination apathy.

“History reveals systemic problems, including lack of public education, lack of access, lack of training, and perhaps most importantly, lack of political will for a national immunisation schedule,” MacDougall says, pointing to a vaccine scepticism that spans beyond the most recent wave in wealthy countries.

In Africa, the WHO has found pockets of low immunisation coverage, while the political and economic crisis in Venezuela has pushed up measles cases there.

Vaccination efforts in the world’s poorest countries are expected to prevent 20 million deaths and save US$350bil (RM1,449bil) in healthcare costs by 2020, researchers at University of North Carolina, United States, say.

However, the WHO’s goal of eradicating measles by 2020 risks failure unless investment in immunisation and public support for the vaccine are shored up, the agency says.

Measles is extremely contagious, and in some cases, can have severe long-term effects.

The illness is characterised by flu-like symptoms and a rash that spreads to most of the body.

It can be fatal in severe cases, and is especially dangerous for babies and toddlers.

It is spread by coughing, sneezing, and close personal contact or direct contact with infected nose or throat secretions.

The most vulnerable include unvaccinated young children and pregnant women, according to the WHO.

“We risk losing decades of progress in protecting children and communities against this devastating, but entirely preventable disease,” WHO deputy director general Soumya Swaminathan says. – dpa