TORONTO - An Ontario child under the age of five has died of measles, the first such case in the Canadian province in more than a decade, according to the provincial health agency.

The child required hospitalization and was not vaccinated against the highly infectious respiratory virus, Public Health Ontario (PHO) said in a statement on Thursday, without specifying when or where the child died, or their actual age.

For the period between Jan. 1, 2013 and this week, there had not been a single measles-related death recorded in the province.

Measles, a highly contagious, airborne virus that mostly affects children under five years old, can be prevented by two doses of vaccine and more than 50 million deaths have been averted since 2000, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau blamed "growing vaccine hesitancy" over the past decade around North America and the world for some of the recent outbreaks of preventable childhood illnesses.

"My best advice to all families is to listen to your physicians, talk with your doctors about what vaccinations are right for their kids .. this is a tragedy that nobody wants to see. I can't imagine what that family is going through right now," Trudeau told reporters in Winnipeg.

In February, the WHO warned that more than half the world's countries will be at high or very high risk of measles outbreaks by the end of the year unless urgent preventative measures were taken.

Ontario, Canada's most populous province, has reported 22 cases of measles so far this year, with the source of infection in 15 attributed to travel, PHO said. Ontario reported some 101 cases between 2013 and 2023.

Canada eradicated measles in 1998 thanks to high immunization coverage, according to the federal health agency. As a result, measles cases in Ontario are predominantly associated with travel, often referred to as “measles importations", the PHO said.

(Reporting by Saadeq Ahmed; Editing by Sharon Singleton and Deepa Babington)