The world is at risk of major measles outbreaks as tens of millions of infants missed their vaccination last year, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO) warned on Nov. 10.
Even though the 2020 number of reported measles cases worldwide has dramatically dropped compared to 2019, the risk of outbreaks is mounting because, among other disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, more than 22 million infants didn’t receive their first dose of measles vaccine, the WHO and the CDC said in a new report.
“Compared with the previous year, reported measles cases decreased by more than 80 percent in 2020. However, measles surveillance also deteriorated with the lowest number of specimens sent for laboratory testing in over a decade,” the CDC said in a statement, noting that 26 countries experienced major measles outbreaks in 2020.
According to the WHO–CDC report, 17 of the said 26 countries are in Africa. The former Soviet republics of Bulgaria and Romania are the only two European countries on the list. No countries in the Americas saw large outbreaks in 2020.
“Large numbers of unvaccinated children, outbreaks of measles, and disease detection and diagnostics diverted to support COVID-19 responses are factors that increase the likelihood of measles-related deaths and serious complications in children,” said Kevin Cain, the global immunization director at the CDC. “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 vaccine-preventable diseases.”
According to the health agencies, while the measures used to mitigate COVID-19—wearing masks, washing hands, and maintaining physical distance —also help curb the spread of the measles virus, countries need to prioritize measles vaccination to reduce the risk of “explosive outbreaks.”
“It’s critical that countries vaccinate 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,” said Dr. Kate O’Brien, director of the WHO’s Department of Immunization, Vaccines, and Biologicals.
“Routine immunization must be protected and strengthened; otherwise, we risk trading one deadly disease for another.”
From 2000 to 2020, the annual number of estimated measles deaths dropped from 1,072,800 to 60,700, according to the WHO–CDC report. A substantial decrease in measles incidence and associated mortality occurred worldwide from 2000 to 2016, followed by a global resurgence during the 2017–2019 period, then an apparent decline in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic.