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UNICEF and the World Health Organization (WHO) are warning communities of what they say is a “perfect storm” of conditions for childhood measles outbreaks.
The agencies said reported global measles cases rose 79% in the first two months of 2022, compared to the same period last year.
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Nearly 17,338 measles cases were reported worldwide in January and February 2022, compared to 9,665 in the first two months of 2021.
Countries with the largest outbreaks are Somalia, Yemen, Nigeria, Afghanistan and Ethiopia.
There have been 21 major and disruptive outbreaks in the past 12 months, from April 2021 to April 2022, most of which have been reported in Africa and the Eastern Mediterranean. That number is likely much higher than reported.
Africa registered a 400% increase in measles, to more than 17,000 cases between January and March.
The WHO said the increase in cases is a “worrying sign of an increased risk of spreading vaccine-preventable diseases and could trigger larger outbreaks” affecting millions of children.
The agency noted that the pandemic-related disruptions of COVID-19, the disparity in vaccines and the use of resources for routine immunization do not protect children from measles and other vaccine-preventable diseases.
The risk has been further compounded by easing COVID-19 mitigation measures and displacement due to conflict and crises.
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“Because measles is highly contagious, cases often come to light quickly as vaccination levels decline. Authorities are concerned that measles outbreaks could also be a precursor to outbreaks of other diseases that do not spread as quickly,” it said.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted immunization services, health systems have been overwhelmed and we are now seeing a resurgence of deadly diseases, including measles. For many other diseases, the impact of these disruptions to immunization services will be felt for decades to come,” Dr. . Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director-general of the WHO, said in a statement. “Now is the time to get essential vaccinations back on track and launch catch-up campaigns so that everyone has access to these life-saving vaccines.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the measles virus is airborne and highly contagious.
It can also be serious and cause serious health complications, especially in children under the age of 5.
About one in five people who get measles in the US will be hospitalized, one in 1,000 will develop brain swelling, and one to three in 1,000 will die — even with the best care.
The WHO notes that the measles virus weakens the immune system, making a child more vulnerable to other infectious diseases months after infection.
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Two doses of the measles vaccine may protect children from measles, but disruptions have delayed the introduction of the second dose of the measles vaccine in many countries.
In 2020, 23 million children missed basic childhood vaccinations through mainstream health services: the highest number since 2009 and 3.7 million more than in 2019.