Millions of children left vulnerable to measles as vaccination rates fall, new report finds

The threat of a measles outbreak grows up due to a significant decline in vaccination rates among children worldwide, according to a joint report released Wednesday by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization.

In recent decades, measles has remained relatively contained due to a two-dose vaccination that is 97% effective. Measles vaccination rates have been steadily declining since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the report found, with nearly 40 million children missing one or both doses in 2021, a record high according to the CDC and WHO.

Due to the pandemic, 61 million doses of measles vaccine were postponed or omitted in 18 countries in 2021, according to the report.

“This decline is a major setback to global progress toward achieving and sustaining measles elimination and leaves millions of children vulnerable to infection,” the two agencies said in a news release.

In 2021, there were about 9 million measles cases and 128,000 measles deaths worldwide, according to the CDC and WHO. Twenty-two countries experienced “large and disruptive outbreaks” — a trend that continued into 2022, the report found.

The report found that, based on the latest data, only 81% of children worldwide receive a first dose and only 71% receive a second dose. This marks the “lowest global coverage rates” since 2008, the CDC and WHO found.

“The paradox of the pandemic is that while vaccines against COVID-19 were developed in record time and deployed in the largest vaccination campaign in history, routine vaccination programs were severely disrupted,” said WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

Now, the two agencies are advising officials around the world to get their vaccination systems back on track to prevent more missed vaccinations.

“Measles outbreaks illustrate weaknesses in vaccination programs,” said CDC Director Dr. Rochelle P. Walensky. “Public health officials can use the outbreak response to identify communities at risk, understand the causes of undervaccination, and help provide locally tailored solutions to ensure vaccinations are available to all.”

The best way to contain the deadly virus is for all concerned to put their resources into vaccination surveillance systems, the report stressed.

Through the Immunization Agenda 2030 global strategy — which aims to give access to vaccines to everyone worldwide — WHO and CDC hope that all children can be immunized and outbreaks can be detected and responded to quickly.

“We have a short window of opportunity to urgently make up lost ground on measles vaccination and protect every child,” said Ephrem Tekle Lemango, UNICEF’s head of immunization, in a statement. “The time for decisive action is now.”

Last week, health officials in central Ohio reported they were investigating a measles outbreak in many childcare facilities. 18 cases were under investigation, officials said at the time. All cases were in unvaccinated children and 17 of the 18 infected children are under the age of five.

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