GENEVA (Reuters) - Large and deadly outbreaks of measles in 30 African countries threaten to reverse gains made against the viral disease in the past two decades, the World Health Organization (WHO) said on Friday.
More than 1,100 deaths from measles have been reported among 64,000 known cases in Africa the last year, it said. Chad, Nigeria and Zimbabwe have had the largest outbreaks.
"There is a widespread resurgence of measles with these outbreaks in over 30 African countries, some of which are seeing very high case fatality ratios," WHO expert Peter Strebel told a news briefing.
Some 8,000 migrant children in Bulgaria also had the highly-contagious disease during the period, he said.
Measles deaths among children under five years old fell to 118,000 in 2008 from 733,000 in 2000, according to the United Nations agency's latest figures.
But the WHO warned that a lack of funding and political commitment could result in a return to more than 500,000 cases measles deaths per year by 2012, wiping out the gains to date.
Health ministers from WHO's 193 member states, holding their annual meeting in Geneva, agreed on Thursday to try to achieve at least 90 percent measles vaccination coverage nationally by 2015.
Britain also reported large numbers of measles cases over the past year, due to vaccination rates which had dropped below 90 percent following a scare that the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) shot could lead to autism, Strebel said.
"In the past it was associated with the MMR autism threat which has now been proven not be present. In the U.K. in fact there have more recently been improvements in vaccination levels and transmission (disease spread) has come down to very low levels," he said.
In February, the Lancet medical journal formally retracted a paper that caused a 12-year international battle over links between the three-in-one childhood MMR vaccine and autism.
The 1998 paper led to a steep drop in the number of vaccinations in the United States, Britain and other parts of Europe, prompting a rise in cases of measles.
Severe measles is more likely among poorly nourished young children. The most serious complications include blindness, encephalitis, severe diarrhea and dehydration, ear infections or severe respiratory infections such as pneumonia, WHO says.
It costs less than $1 to vaccinate a child against measles but two doses are required for full protection.
Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Jonathan Lynn by Reed Stevenson