Measles is making a resurgence worldwide due to millions of children missing either their first or second doses of the vaccine due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Measles could be on the verge of a comeback despite the two-dose vaccine that is 97% effective at preventing infection. The preventable but highly infectious disease started to resurface after a treatment lull in the months following the Covid-19 pandemic. According to a report from the World Health Organization and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately 40 million children missed a dose of the measles vaccine in 2021.
Speaking about the resurgence of measles, WHO Director-General Doctor Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the paradox of the pandemic is that while Covid-19 vaccines were developed and distributed in record time, routine immunization programs were badly disrupted. “Millions of kids missed out on life-saving vaccinations against deadly diseases like measles,” he said.
More specifically, 25 million missed their first dose of the measles vaccine and 14.7 million missed their second dose. “Getting immunization programs back on track is absolutely critical. Behind every statistic in this report is a child at risk of a preventable disease,” Ghebreyesus continued via ABC News. But only 81% of children have received the first dose globally, with 71% having received the second dose. That’s the lowest coverage worldwide since 2008.
To prevent measles from spreading and to achieve herd immunity, the WHO and CDC say at least 95% of children need to get vaccinated. Speaking about the public health risk, WHO measles lead Doctor Patrick O’Connor told Reuters while cases haven’t increased dramatically, now is the time to act. “We are at a crossroads,” he told the publication. “It’s going to be a very challenging 12-24 months trying to mitigate this.”
Doctor O’Connor added that a combination of factors, like lingering social distancing and the cyclical nature of measles, may explain why there hasn’t been an explosion of cases despite the widening immunity gaps. But that could change quickly since the illness is highly contagious. The United Nations health agency has already seen an increase in large disruptive outbreaks since the beginning of 2022, rising from 19 to almost 30 by September.
The new report also estimates that there were approximately nine million cases of measles and 128,000 related deaths worldwide in 2021. And at least 22 countries are experiencing large and disruptive outbreaks. Most recently, the public health department in Columbus, Ohio, reported an outbreak with 24 active cases. All of those cases are in unvaccinated children, NBC News reports.
Measles infection often presents with a fever at the beginning. But the illness is usually characterized by a rash that spreads from the neck and face after a couple days. The virus can linger in the air and on surfaces for up to two hours. An infected person can transmit the disease four days before and after the rash appears, according to the WHO.
Unfortunately, there isn’t a single region in the world that has achieved and sustained measles elimination. Since 2016, at least 10 countries that had previously eliminated measles reported outbreaks, including the U.S. There is currently no specific antiviral to treat the illness.