Background Industrialization and demographic transition generate nonstationary dynamics in human populations that can affect the transmission and persistence of infectious diseases. Decades of increasing vaccination and development have led to dramatic declines in the global burden of measles, but the virus remains persistent in much of the world. Here we show that a combination of demographic transition, as a result of declining birth rates, and reduced measles prevalence, due to improved vaccination, has shifted the age distribution of susceptibility to measles throughout China.
Methods and findings We fit a novel time-varying catalytic model to three decades of age-specific measles case reporting in six provinces in China to quantify the change in the age-specific force of infection for measles virus over time. We further quantified the impact of supplemental vaccination campaigns on the reduction of susceptible individuals. The force of infection of measles has declined dramatically (90%±97% reduction in transmission rate) in three industrialized eastern provinces during the last decade, driving a concomitant increase in both the relative proportion and absolute number of adult cases, while three central and western provinces exhibited dynamics consistent with endemic persistence (24%±73% reduction in transmission rate). The reduction in susceptible individuals due to supplemental vaccination campaigns is frequently below the nominal campaign coverage, likely because campaigns necessarily vaccinate those who may already be immune. The impact of these campaigns has significantly improved over time: campaigns prior to 2005 were estimated to have achieved less than 50% reductions in the proportion susceptible in the target age classes, but campaigns from 2005 onwards reduced the susceptible proportion by 32%±87%. A limitation of this study is that it relies on case surveillance, and thus inference may be biased by age-specific variation in measles reporting.
Conclusions The age distribution of measles cases changes in response to both demographic and vaccination processes. Combining both processes in a novel catalytic model, we illustrate that age-specific incidence patterns reveal regional differences in the progress to measles elimination and the impact of vaccination controls in China. The shift in the age distribution of measles susceptibility in response to demographic and vaccination processes emphasizes the importance of progressive control strategies and measures to evaluate program success that anticipate and react to this transition in observed incidence.