Nearly 40 million children ‘dangerously’ susceptible to growing measles threat – WHO

In 2021, nearly 61 million measles vaccine doses were postponed or missed due to COVID-19-related delays in immunisation campaigns in 18 countries.

Measles vaccination coverage has steadily declined since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the new World Health Organisation (WHO) and United States Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports revealed.

According to the joint publication, a record high of nearly 40 million children missed a measles vaccine dose, of which 25 million children missed their first dose and an additional 14.7 million children skipped their second dose in 2021.

“This decline is a significant setback in global progress towards achieving and maintaining measles elimination and leaves millions of children susceptible to infection.”

In 2021, according to the WHO and CDC, there were an estimated nine million cases and 128 000 deaths from measles worldwide.

Meanwhile, the research found that 22 countries experienced large and disruptive outbreaks.

Declines in vaccine coverage; weakened measles surveillance; continued interruptions and delays in immunisation activities due to COVID-19; as well as persistent large outbreaks in 2022 mean that measles is an imminent threat in every region of the world.

In South Africa, Limpopo recorded 52 cases since the beginning of the measles outbreak.

This comes after the National Institute For Communicable Diseases of South Africa declared a measles outbreak after three cases from two healthcare facilities were reported in the same district in October.

“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 immunisation programmes were badly disrupted, and millions of kids missed out on life-saving vaccinations against deadly diseases like measles,” said WHO Director-General, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

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

According to the two organisations, the situation is grave.

Measles is one of the most contagious human viruses but is almost entirely preventable through vaccination.

“Coverage of 95% or greater of two doses of measles-containing vaccine is needed to create herd immunity to protect communities and achieve and maintain measles elimination. The world is well under that, with only 81% of children receiving their first measles-containing vaccine dose, and only 71% of children receiving their second measles-containing vaccine dose.”

These figures, according to the institutions, are the lowest global coverage rates of the first dose of measles vaccination since 2008, although the coverage varies by country.

Meanwhile, no WHO region has achieved and sustained measles elimination.

Since 2016, 10 countries that had previously eliminated measles experienced outbreaks and re-established transmission.

“The record number of children under-immunised and susceptible to measles shows the profound damage immunisation systems have sustained during the COVID-19 pandemic,” said CDC Director, Dr Rochelle Walensky.

Delays increase the risk of measles outbreaks, so the time for public health officials to accelerate vaccination efforts and strengthen surveillance is now.

CDC and WHO urge coordinated and collaborative action from all partners at global, regional, national, and local levels to prioritise efforts to find and immunise all unprotected children, including those who were missed during the last two years.


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