WHO, UNICEF Warn About Increased Risk of Measles Outbreaks

The World Health Organization and United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund are warning about a heightened risk of measles spreading and triggering larger outbreaks this year.

Worldwide cases are up nearly 80% so far over last year, the groups reported. More than 17,300 measles cases were reported worldwide in January and February, as compared with 9600 cases at the beginning of 2021.

In the last 12 months, there have been 21 “large and disruptive” measles outbreaks, particularly in Africa and the East Mediterranean region. The actual numbers are likely higher due to underreporting and disruptions to surveillance systems.

“Pandemic-related disruptions, increasing inequalities in access to vaccines, and the diversion of resources from routine immunization are leaving too many children without protection against measles and other vaccine-preventable diseases,” the organizations said.

As cities and countries relax COVID-19 restrictions, measles outbreaks are becoming more likely, they noted.

“It is encouraging that people in many communities are beginning to feel protected enough from COVID-19 to return to more social activities. But doing so in places where children are not receiving routine vaccination creates the perfect storm for the spread of a disease like measles,” Catherine Russell, executive director for UNICEF, said in the statement.

In the past year, the largest measles outbreaks have occurred in Somalia, Yemen, Nigeria, Afghanistan, and Ethiopia. The main reason for outbreaks is a lack of measles vaccine coverage, the organizations said.

About 23 million children missed childhood vaccinations in 2020, the groups said. Childhood vaccination campaigns were hindered due to the COVID-19 pandemic and conflicts in Ukraine, Ethiopia, Somalia, and Afghanistan.

Overall, 57 campaigns targeting vaccine-preventable diseases across 43 countries that were scheduled to take place since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic are still postponed, the groups said, which could affect 203 million people. Among those, 19 are measles campaigns, which could put 73 million children at risk of measles due to missed vaccinations.

Vaccine coverage of 95% or higher with two doses of the measles vaccine can provide protection, according to the organizations. But the five countries that had the highest measles cases in the last year had first-dose coverage between 46% and 68%.

In the US, measles vaccinations in kindergarten students dropped from about 95% to 93.9% for the 2020-2021 school year, according to CNN. Vaccination coverage also dropped from 95% to 93.6% for diphtheria, tetanus, acellular pertussis, and varicella. Even though the decreases appear small, it means tens of thousands of children across the US started school without their common childhood vaccinations, the CDC said.

“We are concerned that missed routine vaccinations could leave children vulnerable to preventable diseases like measles and whooping cough, which are extremely contagious and can be very serious, especially for babies and young children,” Shannon Stokley, DrPH, deputy director of the CDC’s Immunization Services Division, told CNN.

The numbers show a “concerning decline in childhood immunizations that began in March 2020,” she said.

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