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Measles outbreaks now a global problem thanks to anti-vaxxers

A closer look at the day's most notable stories with The National's Jonathon Gatehouse.

A closer look at the day's most notable stories

A girl receives anti-measles vaccination drops at a health centre in BASECO compound in Tondo, Manila September 3, 2014. (Erik De Castro/Reuters)

Welcome to The National Today newsletter, which takes a closer look at what's happening around some of the day's most notable stories. Sign up here and it will be delivered directly to your inbox Monday to Friday.

TODAY:

  • Measles outbreaks are becoming more of a global problem, with more than 300,000 suspected and confirmed cases worldwide​. 
  • Brexit takes a toll on Britain's scientific community, leading to fears over a "brain drain." 
  • Missed The National last night? Watch it here.


Connecting the dots

The measles are making a big comeback. 

The latest figures from the World Health Organization show that 2018 will be another (modern) record-setting year for the highly contagious yet easily preventable disease, with 301,702 suspected and confirmed cases worldwide through the end of October. But those represent just a fraction of the actual number of infections, as most cases in the developing world go unreported.

Late last month, the WHO and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, published a report that found a 31 per cent rise in worldwide measles cases in 2017, estimating 110,000 deaths due to the disease, mostly children under the age of five. Reported cases have increased in five of the six world health regions, with only Western Pacific nations like Australia and Japan showing progress.

A health official administers a measles vaccination at Maple Ridge Secondary School on Sept. 7, 2018. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

Targeted vaccination campaigns have reduced the number of measles deaths by 80 per cent over the past two decades, from an estimated 545,000 fatal cases in 2000. But vaccine coverage, which needs to be at 95 per cent to offer "herd immunity" and effectively end outbreaks of the disease, has stalled at around 85 per cent and has been falling in several countries. 

The reason is the anti-vaxxer movement, which has lately been gaining strength and support from populist governments who share their science skepticism.

A report in today's Guardian newspaper captures the frustration of the European Union's health commissioner, Dr. Vytenis Andriukaitis, at the close to 64,000 cases and 72 deaths across the continent so far this year.
"Not just me – all of scientific society is concerned – epidemiologists, paediatricians, infectious disease experts and a lot of health ministers," he told the paper. "It is unimaginable that we have deaths because of measles – children dying because of measles. We promised that by 2020 Europe would be measles free."

Immunization rates have fallen in places like Romania, Italy, Poland and France, as the internet continues to spread discredited concerns about the safety of the MMR vaccine and governments have made it easier for parents to opt out. And the number of cases across Europe have grown exponentially, from 5273 in 2016, to 23,927 last year and now almost triple that figure.

This year, Europe has experienced a particularly large measles outbreaks in Ukraine — 45,000 sickened — and sizeable ones in Serbia, Greece, and Albania among others, with cases now documented in 42 of its 53 nations. In fact, Europe now has more suspected and confirmed cases than Africa, and ranks second behind Southeast Asia, where India is currently experiencing the world's worst outbreak.

But the problem is global.

Venezuela has seen a sharp spike in the measles in the midst of its economic and political meltdown, with more than 6,000 confirmed cases since the summer of 2017, as has neighbouring Brazil, which reports 9,800 cases. Madagascar has had more than 10,000 cases over just the past three months

And this week, Israel saw its second measles death in a month, as the nation grapples with an outbreak that has affected 2,690 people, resulting in 948 hospitalizations.

It has been a relatively quiet year for measles in North America, with 292 cases reported across the United States, and 29 in Canada — the latest leading to a public health alert this week in the Greater Toronto region

The highly contagious disease, which can be spread by coughs or sneezes, usually manifests itself with cold-like symptoms and a rash. But in certain cases it can cause serious and potentially deadly complications, including encephalitis, meningitis and pneumonia. 

Before the MMR vaccine became widely available in 1980, the measles used to kill 2.6 million people every year. And the the WHO estimates that the two dose treatment has prevented 21.1 million deaths since 2000.


Brexit fuels 'brain drain' fears

The U.K.'s departure from the EU has many scientists reconsidering their future, writes CBC London correspondent Thomas Daigle.

A born-and-bred Briton, Emma Bell hadn't planned to leave the U.K.

That's until Britain voted to leave the EU.

"I don't understand why we're intentionally self-destructing," she said.

Uncertainties over Brexit led British cancer researcher Emma Bell to accept a new position in Toronto in the new year. She believes a brain drain is "exactly what's happening" in the U.K. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

As a PhD-trained bioinformatician at Imperial College London, Bell uses computer programming to analyze DNA and identify cancer risks.

But she won't be here for long.

She's moving to Toronto by early February to work at the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre.

"I decided not to look for a position here in the U.K. because I have concerns about what life will be like and what my work will be like after March 29," the day Brexit takes effect.

She's not the only one.

Despite the British government's assurances that it is managing the risks of a no-deal Brexit, scientists fear research material could be delayed at the border, international scientific cooperation could be held up and EU funding could vanish.

Nearly all London-based scientists (97 per cent) who responded to a recent survey said they believe a "hard" Brexit would be bad for their field. More than 1,000 staff took part in the study at the Francis Crick Institute, the country's biggest biomedical research lab.

Jasmin Zohren says she took the 2016 vote "quite personally at the time." A sex chromosome biology researcher at the Crick, Zohren is considering a move back to her native Germany once her contract runs out.

She predicts Brexit with no deal would lead to "chaos."

"No one knows what's going to happen."

In just over three months, Britain is set to leave the European Union. But many uncertainties remain for the scientific community. The CBC's Thomas Daigle met with a scientist who is moving to Canada because of Brexit. 2:17

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A few words on ... 

Connecting at Christmastime.


Quote of the moment

"My views on treating allies with respect and also being clear-eyed about both malign actors and strategic competitors are strongly held and informed by over four decades of immersion in these issues. We must do everything possible to advance an international order that is most conducive to our security, prosperity and values, and we are strengthened in this effort by the solidarity of our alliances."

-U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis airs a fundamental difference with President Donald Trump via his publicly-released resignation letter.

FILE -In this Sept. 21, 2018, file photo, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis speaks during the 2018 POW/MIA National Recognition Day Ceremony at the Pentagon in Washington. President Donald Trump says Mattis will be retiring at the end of February 2019 and that a new secretary will be named shortly. (Susan Walsh/Associated Press)

What The National is reading

  • Canadian held in China questioned daily without lawyer: sources (CBC)
  • Yellow jacket protests head to Portugal (Politico EU)
  • Charlie Hebdo attack suspect arrested in Djibouti (CBC)
  • Mars Express probe beams back images of ice-filled crater (Guardian)
  • Fact-checking fibbing politicians works, study finds (Agence France Presse)
  • Conceal-carry clerk shoots, kills, angry, armed customer (NBC Tusla)
  • Escaping prisoner accidentally hitches lift from policeman (BBC)
  • Tower of London beefeaters to strike over pension changes (Reuters)

Today in history

Dec. 21, 1994: The great fruitcake debate: light or dark?

Should Christmas cake be dark or light? Soak it in enough booze and no one cares. 

The great debate: should Christmas cake be dark or light? 7:13

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A note to readers

The National Today will be taking the next couple of weeks off to roast chestnuts on an open fire and test the limits of eggnog tolerance. See you on Jan. 7, 2019. Joyeuses Fêtes! 



About the Author

Jonathon Gatehouse

Jonathon Gatehouse

Has covered news and politics at home and abroad, reporting from dozens of countries. He has also written extensively about sports, including seven Olympic Games and a best-selling book on the business of pro-hockey.