SWITZERLAND – Measles cases have increased by nearly 80% worldwide this year, according to the United Nations, which added that the increase in measles cases was a forewarning of future outbreaks of other diseases.

Measles is a virus-borne disease that primarily affects children. Blindness, brain swelling, diarrhea, and severe respiratory infections are among the most serious complications.

Vaccination coverage of at least 95% is the most effective way to keep the disease from spreading, but many countries fall far short of that target.

The coronavirus pandemic disrupted vaccination campaigns for many diseases around the world, creating a “perfect storm” that could now endanger the lives of millions of children, according to a joint statement from the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the World Health Organization (WHO).

Pandemic-related disruptions, increasing inequalities in access to vaccines and the diversion of resources from routine immunization are leaving too many children without protection against measles and other vaccine-preventable diseases,” the organizations said.

More than 23 million children missed out on routine vaccinations in 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic spread – the largest number of children to miss vaccinations in more than a decade.

Abetting factors

The risk for large outbreaks “has increased as communities relax social distancing practices and other preventive measures for COVID-19 implemented during the height of the pandemic.”

In January and February 2022, nearly 17,338 cases of the highly contagious disease were reported worldwide, compared to 9,665 in the same period in 2021, the UN Agencies said, adding that cases of highly-transmissible measles tend to show up quickly when vaccination levels decline.

The agencies are now concerned that the outbreaks of measles “could forewarn outbreaks of other diseases that do not spread as rapidly.”

As of this April, the agencies said there have been 21 large and disruptive measles outbreaks around the world in the last 12 months. Most of the measles cases were reported in Africa and the East Mediterranean region.

This is not the first-time global health agencies have warned of lagging pediatric immunizations being an issue of urgent address.

In an April meeting, the WHO’s Strategic Advisory Group of Experts noted that disruptions to routine immunization programs puts “millions of children at risk of disease outbreaks,” and “large and disruptive outbreaks of measles have occurred in at least 19 countries during the past 12 months.”

Humanitarian crisis could aggravate outbreak

There are also fears that the war in Ukraine could spark a resurgence of the disease in the country, which had recorded Europe’s highest rate of measles between 2017-and 2019.

Countries with the largest measles outbreaks since the past year include Somalia with more than 9,000 cases, Yemen, Nigeria, Afghanistan and Ethiopia – each country is facing a form of armed conflict at the moment.

The figures are likely higher, as the pandemic has disrupted surveillance systems globally, with potential underreporting, the agencies said.

The agencies cited insufficient measles vaccine coverage as the primary reason for the outbreaks “wherever they occur.”

According to UN data, Somalia has a vaccination take-up rate of only 46%.

The UN agencies said that 57 vaccination campaigns in 43 countries were postponed at the start of the pandemic and they still have not been completed, affecting 203 million people, most of them children.

The pandemic continues to place pressure on healthcare facilities and staff, taking attention away from vital vaccination for long-standing and deadly diseases.

Now is the moment to get essential immunization back on track and launch catch-up campaigns so that everybody can have access to these life-saving vaccines,” WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in the statement.

The disruptions to immunization services will be “felt for decades to come,” he said.

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