Measles an ‘imminent threat’ as vaccine coverage hits record low

Measles is an “imminent threat” in every region of the world, health agencies have warned, as the number of unvaccinated children has hit a record high.

In 2021 nearly 40 million children did not have their measles shots, according to a report from the World Health Organization (WHO) and US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), leaving millions at risk of catching the highly contagious killer.

Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, head of the WHO, said the surge in missed vaccines was a sign of a “pandemic paradox”, where the intense focus on tackling Covid-19 caused huge setbacks in the fight against other diseases.

“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,” he said.

“Getting immunization programs back on track is absolutely critical. Behind every statistic in this report is a child at risk of a preventable disease.”

‘Profound damage’ to immunization

The report warned that in 2021, 22 countries experienced “large and disruptive outbreaks”, predominantly linked to drops in vaccination coverage due to Covid-related interruptions. Globally, nine million cases were reported, including 128,000 deaths.

Measles is incredibly infectious, with an R-rate of around 18 – compared to a rate of three for the original strain of Covid-19. The disease, which is airborne, typically begins with a fever, persistent cough and rash on the face and upper neck, but can cause pneumonia, brain inflammation and damage to the immune system.

Experts estimate that 95 percent of people in a given community need to be vaccinated to prevent outbreaks, while the shots are 97 percent effective at preventing severe illness and death in individuals.

But in 2021, roughly 61 million measles shots were postponed or missed across 18 countries. In all, just 81 percent of children have had their first dose and just 71 percent have had their second – the lowest global coverage rate since 2008

“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 Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the CDC.

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