With an estimated 22 million infants worldwide missing their measles vaccines because of the COVID-19 pandemic, global health officials are warning that critical steps must be taken to prevent a secondary pandemic.
“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,” Kevin Cain, global immunization director for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said in a prepared statement issued Wednesday.
Specifically, disease detection and diagnostics diverted to support COVID-19 responses, coupled with large numbers of unvaccinated children and persistent global pockets of measles outbreaks, have increased the “likelihood of measles-related deaths and serious complications in children,” Cain added.
According to the CDC, the last widespread measles outbreak in the United States occurred in 2019, when more than 1,200 cases were reported.
According to CBS News, an estimated three million fewer babies were vaccinated in 2020 against the potentially deadly disease than in 2019. Meanwhile, only about 70% of infants received both doses of the two-dose vaccine - typically administered at 1 and 4 years - which falls substantially below the 95% threshold the CDC and the World Health Organization contend is necessary to shield communities from an outbreak.
In addition, the COVID-19 pandemic forced the postponement of a 2020 measles vaccine campaign that was slated to roll out across 23 different countries, meaning more than 93 million people are vulnerable to the disease, the network reported, citing CDC and WHO data.
“While reported measles cases dropped in 2020, evidence suggests we are likely seeing the calm before the storm as the risk of outbreaks continues to grow around the world,” said Dr. Kate O’Brien, director of WHO’s department of immunization, vaccines and biologicals.
“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. Routine immunization must be protected and strengthened; otherwise, we risk trading one deadly disease for another,” she added.
According to the CDC and WHO, measles is considered one of the world’s most contagious human viruses, but its vaccine has prevented an estimated 30 million deaths in the past two decades alone. Regardless, an estimated 7.5 million people worldwide contracted measles in 2020, resulting in nearly 61,000 deaths, the agencies stated.
Meanwhile, the latest Minnesota Department of Health data show the missed vaccination rate for 2-year-olds has increased from about 21% in 2019 to nearly 26% in 2020 and is tracking toward 34% for 2021 year to date, KSTP reported.
Dr. Frank Rhame, an infectious disease specialist with Allina Health, told the TV station that his primary concern is “importation” of measles cases, wherein an infected person entering the United States spreads the virus.
“We don’t have it circulating right now. So it becomes a problem when there is an importation,” Rhame said.
“If there are a low enough fraction of people vaccinated, that allows that importation to produce an outbreak,” he added.
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