The World Health Organization (WHO) has constantly warned in recent months about the risk of “absolute disaster” if the dangerous delay in vaccinating children against measles, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, was not caught up and if health restrictions were lifted too quickly.
The result is dizzying: the number of cases jumped 79% in the first two months of 2022, compared to the same period last year, according to WHO and Unicef on Wednesday April 27. The two UN agencies now fear the appearance of serious epidemics of measles, a highly contagious viral disease, which could affect “millions of children” in 2022.
So far, some 17,338 measles cases have been reported globally in January and February 2022, compared to 9,665 in the first two months of 2021. But the numbers are likely higher, as the pandemic has disrupted systems monitoring. The best protection against measles, which takes its name from the characteristic red patches that appear all over the body, is very high vaccination coverage.
Because measles is highly contagious, cases tend to appear when vaccination levels drop. Both UN agencies fear that outbreaks of measles are a harbinger of outbreaks of other diseases that spread more slowly. “Measles is more than a dangerous and life-threatening disease. It is also one of the first signs that there are gaps in global vaccination coverage.”underlined the director general of Unicef, Catherine Russell.
There have been 21 significant measles outbreaks in the last twelve months (to April), most of them in Africa and the Eastern Mediterranean region. The countries with the biggest measles outbreaks since last year are Somalia, Yemen, Nigeria, Afghanistan and Ethiopia.
“Resurgence of deadly diseases”
According to the WHO and Unicef, too many children have not been able to benefit from measles vaccines due in particular to the disruption of health systems linked to the Covid-19 pandemic. In 2020, 23 million children worldwide did not receive basic childhood vaccines through routine health services, the highest number since 2009, and 3.7 million more than in 2019 , according to WHO and Unicef.
“The Covid-19 pandemic has disrupted immunization services, health systems have been overwhelmed, and we are now seeing a resurgence of deadly diseases, including measles. For many other diseases, the impact of these disruptions to immunization services will be felt for decades.”warned WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.
“Now is the time to get critical immunization programs back on track and launch catch-up campaigns so that everyone can have access to these life-saving vaccines”, he asked. The risk of large outbreaks increases as countries ease preventive measures taken to combat Covid-19, such as observing physical distancing.
“It is encouraging to see that people in many communities are beginning to feel sufficiently protected against Covid-19 to resume more social activities. But doing it in places where children don’t get routine vaccinations creates the perfect conditions for a disease like measles to spread.”warned M.me Russell.
The displacement of millions of people due to conflicts and crises in Ukraine, Ethiopia, Somalia and Afghanistan, among other countries, also increases the risk of epidemics among already very weakened populations.