Last year had the most significant increase in 20 years in the number of children who missed the measles vaccine. A report from the World Health Organization and United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found over 22 million children missed the first dose of measles vaccine last year, 3 million more than the previous year.
Additionally, only 70 per cent of children received second doses of the vaccine, whereas the goal is to hit 95 per cent to prevent the spread of the disease. In 2020, 23 countries postponed measles vaccination campaigns because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
"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," said Ephrem Tekle Lemango, associate director for immunization at UNICEF in a press release.
The highly contagious disease, which can lead to disability and death, is preventable with vaccines. Before the pandemic, the world saw an uptick in cases. Reported measles cases hit their highest levels in 23 years in 2019 — reaching nearly 8,70,000 cases. Deaths from the disease increased 50 per cent between 2016 and 2019.
Measles cases declined by 80 per cent over the previous year — there were still outbreaks in 26 countries.
"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," said Kate O'Brien, director of the department of immunization, vaccines, and biologicals at WHO.
WHO also said surveillance efforts are declining. Its Global Measles and Rubella Laboratory Network received the lowest number of samples sent to laboratories in a decade last year — 1,22,517 specimens. The report said that lower reported measles cases in 2020 must not mask the growing risk of measles to children worldwide.
In the last 20 years, the measles vaccine is estimated to have averted more than 30 million deaths globally. Estimated deaths from measles dropped from around 1,070,000 in 2000 to 60,700 in 2020. The estimated number of measles cases in 2020 was 7.5 million globally.
"The pandemic is having a huge impact on countries' ability to deliver essential health services such as routine immunization, placing millions of people, mainly children, at risk of highly infectious diseases such as measles. We must urgently address the critical measles immunity gaps with a particular focus on reaching zero-dose children who are most at risk of devastating measles outbreaks," said Anuradha Gupta, Deputy CEO, Gavi.
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