WHO warns the world could trade COVID for measles as vaccines decline

The World Health Organization has warned that the world could see unprecedented measles outbreaks due to disruptions in immunization services in dozens of countries due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

While there was a more than 80% decrease in reported measles cases in the world last year, many of which were likely prevented by the methods used to mitigate the virus (masking, hand washing, and social distancing), more than 22 million babies did not receive their first dose of measles. vaccine. That’s three million more children who missed their first dose than in 2019, marking the biggest increase in two decades and creating dangerous conditions for outbreaks to occur, according to the WHO.

Additionally, only 70% of the children received their second dose of measles vaccine.

Only 7.5 million measles cases were reported in 2020, the WHO said. However, measles surveillance also deteriorated. The fewest samples have been sent for laboratory testing in more than a decade.

In Israel, thousands of children did not receive their measles vaccinations during the first wave of the pandemic when they did not feel safe visiting Tipat Halav, according to nurse Rachel Fish, manager of the Maccabi Health Services Division of Public Health.

A nurse holds a vial of measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine (credit: REUTERS / BRIAN SNYDER)

However, he said Maccabi and the other health funds managed to contact those who failed their vaccines and vaccinated them during the following waves. To date, Israel has achieved the same vaccination rate as before the pandemic.

For Maccabi, this means that around 90% of eligible children are vaccinated against the measles virus.

“At the beginning of COVID, when parents were scared to come, we saw a real decline,” Fish said, “but parents have come back.”

However, not all Israelis are vaccinated, a situation that has led to measles outbreaks in the country in the past, roughly every seven years, according to Fish. The last one was in 2017-2018.

And if travel is resumed, measles could enter Israel.

“Even before the pandemic, we were seeing how even small pockets of low measles immunization coverage could fuel unprecedented outbreaks, even in countries where the disease had been deemed eradicated,” said Ephrem Tekle Lemango, UNICEF Associate Director of Immunization. . “Now, COVID-19 is creating ever-widening gaps in coverage at a rate we haven’t seen in decades.

“While we haven’t seen an increase in cases yet, measles is simply too contagious,” he continued. “If we don’t act, the gaps will become outbreaks and many children will be exposed to a preventable but life-threatening disease.”

“We must act now to strengthen disease surveillance systems and close immunity gaps, before travel and trade return to pre-pandemic levels, to prevent deadly measles outbreaks and mitigate the risk of other preventable diseases. with vaccines, “added Dr. Kevin Cain, the global director of immunization for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Measles is one of the most contagious and deadly viruses, but it can be almost completely prevented by vaccination. The WHO estimated that up to 30 million deaths were averted worldwide over the past 20 years through measles vaccines.

“While reported measles cases declined in 2020, evidence suggests that we will likely see calm before the storm, as the risk of outbreaks continues to grow worldwide,” said Dr. Kate O’Brien, director of the WHO Department of Immunization, Vaccines and Biologics. “It is essential that countries get vaccinated as quickly as possible against COVID-19, but this requires new resources so that it does not come at the cost of essential immunization programs.

“Routine immunization must be protected and strengthened,” he continued, “otherwise we run the risk of swapping one fatal disease for another.”


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