Feb. 28 (UPI) -- The number of measles cases around the globe surged to alarmingly high levels in 2018 with 98 countries reporting increases in infected patients from a year earlier, according to data by UNICEF.
The Philippines, Brazil and France along with seven other countries account for almost two-thirds of the total increase, which UNICEF says is eroding progress already made in the fight against this curable and highly deadly disease.
"This is a wake-up call," said UNICEF's Executive Director Henrietta H. Fore in a statement Wednesday. "We have a safe, effective and inexpensive vaccine against a highly contagious disease -- a vaccine that has saved almost a million lives every year over the last two decades."
Ukraine saw the highest on-year increase with 35,120 reported cases in 2018. In 2017, Ukraine had only 4,782.
However, it looks like the country will surpass that number this year as it has already reported 24,042 measles cases, the report said citing government data.
The Philippines recorded 15,599 cases in 2018 up from 2,428 the year prior.
That number will soon be passed in 2019 as the country already has 12,736 cases and 203 deaths.
Brazil had the third most cases of measles in 2018 with 10,262. However, the country had zero reported measles patients in 2017.
Moldova, Montenegro and Colombia also reported measles cases in 2018 despite having none the year prior, but none came close to Brazil's increase as Moldova had the second highest increase of these countries with 312 cases.
"These cases haven't happened overnight. Just as the serious outbreaks we are seeing today took hold in 2018, lack of action today will have disastrous consequences for children tomorrow," Fore said.
Measles is a highly contagious disease that is spread through the air and infects through the respiratory tract. Malnourished children and infants too young to be immunized face the greatest risk of death from the disease, UNICEF said.
UNICEF attributes the increase in both developed and developing countries to poor health infrastructure, civil strife, low community awareness, complacency and vaccine hesitancy.
"Almost all of these cases are preventable, and yet children are getting infected even in places where there is simply no excuse," said Fore. "Measles may be the disease, but, all too often, the real infection is misinformation, mistrust and complacency."
The outbreak currently in the Philippines has been blamed on controversy that broke over a dengue fever vaccine as potential side effects to the shot were not properly advertised creating mistrust among the public against all vaccines.
The Ministry of Health has rolled out several programs, some in partnership with UNICEF, to convince Filipinos to vaccinate their children, including having famous boxer-cum-Senator Manny Pacquiao star in a pro-vaccination commercial.
The United States, a country that declared it had eliminated measles in 2000, also saw a drastic increase in the disease from 120 cases in 2017 to 791 cases in 2018, an increase of nearly 600 percent.
This number may soon by trumped in 2019 as New York is currently experiencing its worst outbreak in decades and Washington state is fighting one of its own with 66 confirmed cases already for this year, according to the Washington State Department of Health.
UNICEF's report comes as lawmakers debate anti-vaccination legislation that would allow parents to easily opt out of vaccinating their children, the Washington Post reported.
The bill is supported by Rep. Bill Zelder, R-Texas, who falsely stated that the disease can be fought with antibiotics.
"They want to say people are dying of measles. Yeah, in third-world countries they're dying of measles," Zedler said. "Today, with antibiotics and that kind of stuff, they're not dying in America."
This misinformation, UNICEF said, is part of the problem.
"We must do more to accurately inform every parent, to help us safely vaccinate every child," Fore said.