SWITZERLAND – Measles deaths worldwide experienced a startling surge of over 40% last year, coupled with an 18% rise in cases, as vaccination levels plummeted during the pandemic, according to a joint report by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Published in the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, the findings underscore a concerning trend where 37 countries reported large or disruptive outbreaks in 2022, a significant increase from 22 in 2021.
The African region bore the brunt of this resurgence with 28 outbreaks, followed by the Eastern Mediterranean (6), South East Asia (2), and the European region (1).
Measles, a highly infectious disease, afflicted 9 million children and claimed 136,000 lives globally in the past year, primarily in economically disadvantaged countries.
The CDC’s John Vertefeuille expressed his concern, stating, “The increase in measles outbreaks and deaths is staggering, but unfortunately, not unexpected given the declining vaccination rates we’ve seen in the past few years.”
The decline in immunization levels during the pandemic, reaching their lowest point in 15 years, contributed to a nearly 20% rise in measles cases.
Notably, the immunization rates in developing countries, particularly in Africa, Southeast Asia, Latin America, and India, are at the highest risk.
Despite a modest increase in global vaccine coverage from 2021 to 2022, 33 million children missed a measles vaccine dose, indicating a failure to recover from the setbacks during the pandemic.
Two doses of the measles vaccine offer substantial protection against the disease, yet vaccination rates in impoverished countries hover around 66%, indicating no recovery from the pandemic-induced decline.
The report highlights critical gaps in vaccine coverage, with 22 million children missing their first dose and 11 million failing to receive their second shot.
These global coverage rates fall short of the 95% two-dose goal necessary to shield communities from outbreaks.
Measles-related deaths reached their peak in low-income countries, where coverage rates remained low, with no signs of improvement post-pandemic.
Over half of the 22 million children who missed their second measles vaccine dose in 2022 belonged to ten countries: Angola, Brazil, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, India, Indonesia, Madagascar, Nigeria, Pakistan, and the Philippines.
Kate O’Brien, MD, the WHO’s director for immunization, vaccines, and biologicals, emphasized the urgency for action, stating, “Measles is called the inequity virus for good reason. It is the disease that will find and attack those who aren’t protected.”
Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, echoed the need for immediate action to address coverage gaps and mitigate the rising threats. Aurelia Nguyen, Gavi’s chief program officer, stressed the challenges even before the pandemic and emphasized the crucial support required to rectify the situation in 2024.
Measles, one of the most contagious diseases, spreads through the air when an infected person coughs or sneezes, primarily affecting children under 5.
Its symptoms include fever, cough, runny nose, and a distinctive rash. Complications, such as encephalitis, severe dehydration, breathing problems, and pneumonia, pose a significant risk, particularly in young children and adults over 30.
Despite being a disease that has surged in both rich and developing countries, the report underscores the critical role of sustained immunization efforts and the need to dispel misinformation that has fueled vaccine hesitancy in some regions.