Reported cases of measles have exploded by nearly 80% worldwide in the first two months of the year, the World Health Organization and UNICEF announced Wednesday.
The WHO has been sounding the alarm in recent months about the risk of "absolute catastrophe" if the dangerous delay in vaccinating children because of the Covid-19 pandemic is not made up for and if health restrictions are lifted too quickly.
The result is staggering: the number of cases jumped by 79% in the first two months of 2022, compared to the same period last year, according to WHO and Unicef. The two UN agencies now fear that serious outbreaks of measles, a highly contagious viral disease, could affect "millions of children" in 2022.
So far, some 17,338 cases of measles have been reported worldwide in January and February 2022, compared with 9,665 in the first two months of 2021. But the numbers are likely higher because the pandemic has disrupted surveillance systems.
The best protection against measles, which gets its name from the characteristic red patches all over the body, is very high vaccination coverage.
There have been 21 major measles outbreaks in the past 12 months (through April), mostly in Africa and the Eastern Mediterranean region.
The countries with the largest measles outbreaks since last year are Somalia, Yemen, Nigeria, Afghanistan and Ethiopia.
Because measles is highly contagious, cases tend to appear when vaccination levels drop. Both UN agencies are concerned that measles outbreaks are a harbinger of outbreaks of other diseases that spread more slowly.
"Resurgence of deadly diseases"
"Measles is more than a dangerous and potentially deadly disease. It is also one of the first signs that there are gaps in global immunization coverage," said Unicef Executive Director Catherine Russell.
According to WHO and UNICEF, too many children have missed out on measles vaccines due in part to health system disruptions related 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 disrupted immunization services, health systems were overwhelmed, and we are now seeing a resurgence of deadly diseases, including measles. For many other diseases, the impact of these disruptions in immunization services will be felt for decades," warned WHO head Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.
"Now is the time to get essential immunization programs back on track and launch catch-up campaigns so that everyone can have access to these life-saving vaccines," he urged.
The risk of major outbreaks increases as countries relax preventive measures taken to control Covid-19, such as adherence to physical distancing.
"It is encouraging that people in many communities are beginning to feel protected enough from Covid-19 to resume more social activities. But doing so in places where children are not receiving routine vaccinations creates the perfect conditions for a disease like measles to spread," Russell warned.
The displacement of millions of people due to conflicts and crises in Ukraine, Ethiopia, Somalia and Afghanistan, among others, also increases the risk of outbreaks among already weakened populations.