The World Health Organization (WHO) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have published a joint report on the uptake of the measles vaccine in 2021, and it is bad news. Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, almost 40 million children have missed a measles vaccine dose. A reported 25 million children missed their first dose and 14.7 million missed their second dose. That’s the lowest global uptake of the vaccine’s first dose since 2008.
Measles is a debilitating disease that infected 9 million people in 2021 and killed 128,000. That’s a mortality rate of slightly over 1.4 percent. The reduced immunization levels, combined with weakened surveillance, has led to large measles outbreaks around the world. The threat of this disease globally is incredibly serious.
"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 immunization programmes were badly disrupted, and millions of kids missed out on life-saving vaccinations against deadly diseases like measles," WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in a statement. "Getting immunization programmes back on track is absolutely critical. Behind every statistic in this report is a child at risk of a preventable disease."
Despite the availability and effectiveness of vaccines, no WHO region has been able to eliminate measles. And since 2016, there have been 10 countries that had previously eliminated the disease that have experienced outbreaks. There was also the famous case of an unvaccinated French tourist family who reintroduced measles to Costa Rica in 2019.
To continue to protect children from the disease, it is important that countries strengthen their immunization programs and related health services, as well as keeping reports and providing information about outbreaks.
“The record number of children under-immunized and susceptible to measles shows the profound damage immunization systems have sustained during the COVID-19 pandemic,” said CDC Director Dr. Rochelle P. Walensky. “Measles outbreaks illustrate weaknesses in immunization programs, but public health officials can use outbreak response to identify communities at risk, understand causes of under-vaccination, and help deliver locally tailored solutions to ensure vaccinations are available to all.”
Both the WHO and CDC are committed to the Immunization Agenda 2030 global immunization strategy, which aims to detect outbreaks quickly, have equally quick responses, and immunize children. The goal is for 95 percent of children to be immunized against the disease, but so far only 81 percent have received a first dose and only 71 percent a second one.
“For three years, we have been sounding the alarm about the declining rates of vaccination and the increasing risk to children's health globally. Widening gaps in immunization coverage are letting measles – the most contagious yet vaccine-preventable killer disease – spread and cause illness and death. We have a short window of opportunity to urgently make up for lost ground in measles vaccination and protect every child. The time for decisive action is now,” said Ephrem Tekle Lemango, Chief of Immunization at UNICEF.