…Nearly 40 million children are dangerously susceptible to growing measles threat
A new, joint report from the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has reemphasised the global threat posed by measles.
Measles vaccination coverage has steadily declined since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2021, a record high of nearly 40 million children missed a measles vaccine dose: 25 million children missed their first dose and an additional 14.7 million children missed their second dose. This decline is a significant setback in global progress towards achieving and maintaining measles elimination and leaves millions of children susceptible to infection.
In 2021, there were an estimated 9 million cases and 128 000 deaths from measles worldwide. Twenty-two countries experienced large and disruptive outbreaks. Declines in vaccine coverage weakened measles surveillance and continued interruptions and delays in immunisation activities due to COVID-19, as well as persistent large outbreaks in 2022, mean that measles is an imminent threat in every region of the world.
“The paradox of the pandemic is that while vaccines against COVID-19 were developed in record time and deployed in the largest vaccination campaign in history, routine immunisation programmes were badly disrupted and millions of kids missed out on life-saving vaccinations against deadly diseases like measles,” said WHO director-general, Dr. Tedros Ghebreyesus. “Getting immunisation programmes back on track is critical. Behind every statistic in this report is a child at risk of a preventable disease.”
The situation is grave: measles is one of the most contagious human viruses but is almost entirely preventable through vaccination. Coverage of 95 per cent or greater of 2 doses of measles-containing vaccine is needed to create herd immunity to protect communities and achieve and maintain measles elimination. The world is well under that, with only 81% of children receiving their first measles-containing vaccine dose, and only 71% of children receiving their second measles-containing vaccine dose. These are the lowest global coverage rates of the first dose of measles vaccination since 2008, although the coverage varies by country.
Urgent global action needed
Measles anywhere is a threat everywhere, as the virus can quickly spread to multiple communities and across international borders. No WHO region has achieved and sustained measles elimination. Since 2016, ten countries that had previously eliminated measles experienced outbreaks and re-established transmission.
“The record number of children under-immunized and susceptible to measles shows the profound damage immunisation systems have sustained during the COVID-19 pandemic,” said CDC director, Dr Rochelle P. Walensky. “Measles outbreaks illustrate weaknesses in immunisation programmes, but public health officials can use outbreak response to identify communities at risk, understand causes of under-vaccination and help deliver locally tailored solutions to ensure vaccinations are available to all.”
In 2021, nearly 61 million measles vaccine doses were postponed or missed due to COVID-19-related delays in immunisation campaigns in 18 countries. Delays increase the risk of measles outbreaks, so the time for public health officials to accelerate vaccination efforts and strengthen surveillance is now. CDC and WHO urge coordinated and collaborative action from all partners at global, regional, national, and local levels to prioritise efforts to find and immunise all unprotected children, including those who were missed during the last two years.
Measles outbreaks illustrate weaknesses in immunization programmes and other essential health services. To mitigate the risk of outbreaks, countries and global stakeholders must invest in robust surveillance systems. Under the Immunisation Agenda 2030 global immunisation strategy, global immunisation partners remain committed to supporting investments in strengthening surveillance as a means to detect outbreaks quickly, respond with urgency and immunise all children who are not yet protected from vaccine-preventable diseases.