LONDON (Reuters) - Death rates from measles fell 74 percent between 2000 and 2010, missing an internationally agreed target for a 90 percent fall mainly because of low vaccine coverage in India and Africa where the virus kills tens of thousands a year.
A study led by the World Health Organisation (WHO) published on Tuesday found that despite rapid progress, regular measles outbreaks in Africa and slow implementation of disease control in India were major concerns and led to the target being missed.
If the world is to succeed in wiping out the highly contagious disease, vaccination coverage rates must be increased in these and other key regions, the researchers said.
“Intensified control measures and renewed political and financial commitment are needed to ... lay the foundation for future global eradication of measles,” the researchers wrote in the study in The Lancet medical journal.
Measles is a viral disease and transmitted when an infected person breaths, coughs or sneezes. There is no specific treatment for it and most people recover in two to three weeks.
However, particularly in malnourished children and people with weak immunity, measles can cause serious complications including blindness, encephalitis, severe diarrhea, ear infections and pneumonia.
The disease can be prevented by immunization and experts say increasing vaccination rates to above 95 percent worldwide and keeping them up is the only way to eradicate measles.
The WHO study, which also involved researchers from Penn State University in the United States and from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), said the 74 percent drop meant measles killed an estimated 139,200 people across the world in 2010, down from just over 535,000 in 2000.
The researchers, led by WHO immunization expert Peter Strebel, suggested India’s relatively low measles vaccine coverage - 74 percent - is the reason why the disease is still a major cause of death there. It lags behind Africa on 76 percent.
Southeast Asia excluding India had 79 percent coverage in 2010, with the Eastern Mediterranean on 85 percent, the Americas 93 percent, Europe 95 percent and Western Pacific 97 percent. The global coverage overall was 85 percent.
The study found that India accounted for 47 percent of measles deaths in 2010, while Africa had 36 percent.
The Americas and Europe accounted for less than 1 percent each, but fears about a measles comeback have been growing in these regions too.
The CDC said last week there were 222 cases of measles in the United States last year, more than triple the usual number. No one has died from measles in the United States since 2008.
Europe suffered a major outbreak of the disease in 2011, with France, Spain, Germany and Switzerland recording thousands of cases.
Reporting by Kate Kelland; Editing by Janet Lawrence