Apr 27, 2022 - Health

UN: Measles cases surge 79% after pandemic disruptions

Yemeni children receive doses of vaccines against measles and polio as part of vaccine campaign launched in Sanaa, Yemen on December 20, 2021.

Yemeni children receive doses of vaccines against measles and polio in Sanaa, Yemen, in December 2021. Photo: Mohammed Hamoud/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Measles cases jumped 79% globally in 2022 compared to the same period last year, United Nations health experts warned Wednesday.

Why it matters: The rise in January and February "is a worrying sign of a heightened risk for the spread of vaccine-preventable diseases," per a joint statement from the World Health Organization and UNICEF.

  • It "could trigger larger outbreaks, particularly of measles affecting millions of children in 2022," the agencies said.
  • "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 statement notes.

What they're saying: WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus noted in a statement that the COVID-19 pandemic had "interrupted immunization services, health systems have been overwhelmed."

  • The world is "seeing a resurgence of deadly diseases including measles" and for "many other diseases, the impact of these disruptions to immunization services will be felt for decades to come," Tedros added.
  • "Now is the moment to get essential immunization back on track and launch catch-up campaigns so that everybody can have access to these life-saving vaccines."

Of note: UNICEF executive director Catherine Russell said in a statement it's "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," Russell added. 

The big picture: There were "21 large and disruptive measles outbreaks around the world in the last 12 months" — mostly in Africa and the East Mediterranean region, according to the WHO and UNICEF.

  • Countries with the largest measles outbreaks in the past year include Somalia, Yemen, Nigeria, Afghanistan, and Ethiopia.

By the numbers: "Almost 17,338 measles cases were reported worldwide in January and February 2022, compared to 9,665 during the first two months of 2021," the UN agencies note.

  • As of April 1, 57 vaccine-preventable disease campaigns in 43 countries that were scheduled to take place since the start of the pandemic remained postponed, impacting 203 million people — most of whom are children, UN research shows.
  • Of these, 19 are measles campaigns, which put 73 million children at risk of measles due to missed vaccinations.

State of play: Coverage at or above 95% with two doses of the safe and effective measles vaccine can protect children against measles, the WHO and UNICEF note.

  • However, pandemic-related disruptions have delayed the introduction of the second dose of the measles vaccine in many countries.
  • In the U.S., a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report last week found kindergartners had a 93.9% vaccination rate for measles, mumps and rubella, per CNN.
  • Compared with the 2019–20 school year, overall vaccination coverage fell by about 1% percentage point, the CDC notes.

Meanwhile, in Ukraine, the measles catch-up campaign was interrupted first due to the pandemic and then because of the Russian invasion of the country, the WHO and UNICEF said.

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