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Measles outbreak threat as COVID-19 scuppers vaccine programmes

Thursday November 11th 2021

The risk of measles outbreaks is increasing while efforts to eliminate the disease continue to decline, a new report from the World Health Organization and US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has warned.

The report, published yesterday, reveals that in 2020, more than 22 million infants missed their first dose of measles vaccine, three million more than in 2019, which is the largest increase in two decades.

Measles surveillance also deteriorated, with the lowest number of specimens sent for laboratory testing in more than ten years, while major measles outbreaks occurred in 26 countries, accounting for 84% of all reported cases in 2020.

Dr Kevin Cain, CDC’s global immunisation director, said: “Large numbers of unvaccinated children, outbreaks of measles, and disease detection and diagnostics diverted to support COVID-19 responses are factors that increase the likelihood of measles-related deaths and serious complications in children.

“We must act now to strengthen disease surveillance systems and close immunity gaps, before travel and trade return to pre-pandemic levels, to prevent deadly measles outbreaks and mitigate the risk of other vaccine-preventable diseases.”

The research found first-dose coverage fell in 2020, and 70% of children received their second dose measles vaccine, well below the 95% coverage needed to protect communities from the spread of the measles virus.

It also calculated that 24 measles vaccination campaigns in 23 countries were postponed in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Dr Kate O’Brien, director of WHO’s Department of Immunisation, Vaccines and Biologicals, said: “While reported measles cases dropped in 2020, evidence suggests we are likely seeing the calm before the storm as the risk of outbreaks continues to grow around the world.

“It’s critical that countries vaccinate as quickly as possible against COVID-19, but this requires new resources so that it does not come at the cost of essential immunisation programmes. Routine immunisation must be protected and strengthened; otherwise, we risk trading one deadly disease for another.”

In the last 20 years, the measles vaccine is estimated to have averted more than 30 million deaths globally, with estimated deaths dropping from about 1.07 million in 2000 to 60,700 in 2020.

The estimated number of measles cases in 2020 was 7.5 million globally.

By the end of 2020, 81 countries had succeeded in sustaining their measles elimination status despite the pandemic, but no new countries were verified as having achieved measles elimination.

There are still 15 countries that have not introduced the measles second dose into their national immunisation schedules.

Ephrem Tekle Lemango, UNICEF associate director for immunisation, said: “Even before the pandemic, we were seeing how even small pockets of low measles immunisation coverage could fuel unprecedented outbreaks, including in countries where the disease had been considered eradicated.

“And now, COVID-19 is creating widening gaps in coverage at a pace we haven’t seen in decades. While we have not seen an increase in cases yet, measles is simply too contagious. If we do not act, gaps will become outbreaks, and many children will be exposed to a preventable but potentially deadly disease.”

Tags: Child Health | Flu & Viruses | North America | World Health

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