Nov 23, 2022 - Health

CDC and WHO say measles "an imminent threat" to world

A person holding a vial of measles vaccine in Orlando, Florida, in May 2019.

A person holding a vial of measles vaccine in Orlando, Florida, in May 2019. Photo: Paul Hennessy/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Measles vaccination rates have steadily declined around the world since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, leaving millions of children susceptible to the virus, according to new data in a joint report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO).

Why it matters: The organizations said measles is "an imminent threat in every region of the world," as it is one of the most contagious human viruses — though it is also entirely preventable through vaccination.

  • They said the drop in measles vaccinations was also "a significant setback" in global effort to eliminate the virus.

By the numbers: In 2021, a record high of nearly 40 million children missed their first or second measles vaccine dose, meaning they are either not at all or partially vaccinated against the virus.

  • The CDC and WHO said there were an estimated 9 million measles cases and 128,000 deaths from the virus worldwide in 2021.

What they're saying: "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 immunization programs were badly disrupted, and millions of kids missed out on life-saving vaccinations against deadly diseases like measles," WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in a statement.

  • "The record number of children under-immunized and susceptible to measles shows the profound damage immunization systems have sustained during the COVID-19 pandemic," said CDC Director Rochelle Walensky.
  • "Measles outbreaks illustrate weaknesses in immunization programs, 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," Walensky added.

How it works: The CDC and WHO said the world is far below the immunization level needed to attain herd immunity against measles, which is estimated to be 95% or greater of the population.

  • Currently, only 81% of children around the world have received their first measles vaccine dose, and only 71% of children have received their second dose.
  • They said that is the lowest coverage rate for the first measles dose around the world since 2008.

The big picture: 22 countries experienced "large and disruptive" measles outbreaks last year.

  • Those outbreaks and "persistent large outbreaks in 2022" were caused by declines in vaccination coverage, weakened surveillance systems for the virus and delays in immunization efforts caused by the coronavirus pandemic, according to the organizations.
  • Since 2016, 10 countries — including the U.S. — that had previously eliminated measles experienced outbreaks and reestablished transmission.

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