The World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) are both warning that there have been 21 “large and disruptive” outbreaks of measles across the globe in recent months. According to a press release posted on Wednesday, the organizations said worldwide cases are up nearly 80% so far in 2022 compared with 2021.
That is not good.
“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 release read, noting that many of the outbreaks have been in Africa and the East Mediterranean region. “With millions of people being displaced due to conflicts and crises including in Ukraine, Ethiopia, Somalia and Afghanistan, disruptions in routine immunization and COVID-19 vaccination services, lack of clean water and sanitation, and overcrowding increase the risk of vaccine-preventable disease outbreaks.”
The spread of measles is most likely due to pandemic-related disruptions and increasing inequalities in access to vaccines, WHO and UNICEF noted. And that the diversion of resources from routine immunization are leaving too many children without protection. As measles is very contagious, cases tend to show up quickly when vaccination levels decline.
The agencies are concerned the latest spread could forewarn outbreaks of other diseases that do not spread as rapidly.
“Measles is more than a dangerous and potentially deadly disease. It is also an early indication that there are gaps in our global immunization coverage, gaps vulnerable children cannot afford,” said Catherine Russell, UNICEF Executive Director. “It is 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.”
At the end of 2020, studies showed that measles vaccination rates were in decline and many feared the problem would lead to an “inevitable” outbreak. Now, here we are. Data released in July 2021 showed that 23 million children missed out on basic childhood vaccines through routine health services in 2020, the highest number since 2009 and 3.7 million more than in 2019.
“Even as countries clamor to get their hands on COVID-19 vaccines, we have gone backwards on other vaccinations, leaving children at risk from devastating but preventable diseases like measles, polio or meningitis,” Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO director-general, said at the time. “Multiple disease outbreaks would be catastrophic for communities and health systems already battling COVID-19, making it more urgent than ever to invest in childhood vaccination and ensure every child is reached.”
In the five countries with the highest measles cases in the last year — Somalia, Yemen, Afghanistan, Nigeria and Ethiopia — first dose coverage was below 70% in 2020. In the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published data last week that showed MMR vaccinations in kindergarten students dropped to 93.6% in the 2020-2021 school year.
And there’s other evidence that kids in the U.S. are falling behind their regular vaccine schedules. In 2020, the CDC saw a 15% drop from pre-pandemic levels of states’ orders for Vaccines for Children, which is the federal program that helps vaccinate nearly half the children in the country. And in red states where COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy is rampant, parents are choosing to skip other vaccines, too. In Tennessee alone, 14 percent fewer routine vaccines were given to kids under 2.
If more babies and children are left vulnerable due to missed vaccination routines, very contagious and serious diseases will inevitably spread. Protect your children and stay on top of vaccinations.