Measles is an “imminent threat” worldwide, the WHO and CDC warn


Measles, the preventable but highly contagious disease, could be about to return after a lull in the first few months after the emergence of the coronavirus, the World Health Organization and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Wednesday.

The two public health agencies called measles an “imminent threat in every region of the world,” they said in a report that nearly 40 million children missed their vaccine dose last year. They said 25 million children did not get their first dose, while another 14.7 million missed their second injection, a record number of missed vaccinations.

Measles infection rates have declined over the past two decades, although it remains a deadly threat, especially to unvaccinated young children in developing countries. But there were an estimated 9 million cases and 128,000 deaths worldwide last year, up from 7.5 million cases and 60,700 in 2020. That increase came amid poorer disease surveillance and vaccine campaigns delayed by the pandemic, the WHO and CDC said.

Vaccination can also bring benefits to one’s community, a concept known as herd immunity. About 95 percent of a population needs to be vaccinated with two doses for herd immunity to occur, but only about 81 percent of children worldwide have received their first dose and 71 percent their second, the two agencies said.

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Measles, which begins with cold symptoms, undermines the immune system, making those infected more susceptible to other illnesses. In some cases, seizures and blindness are possible, according to the UK’s National Health Service.

The WHO has previously warned that the drop in measles infections at the start of the pandemic was the “calm before the storm”.

“Routine immunization must be protected and strengthened,” despite the coronavirus, Kate O’Brien, WHO’s director of immunization, vaccines and biologics, said last year. Otherwise, “we risk trading one deadly disease for another.”

Hur Jian, an infectious disease expert at Yeungnam University Medical Center in South Korea, said the recent uptick in global travel predicts a likely return of measles, even in wealthy countries with higher vaccination rates. Younger generations less exposed to the disease may have weaker defenses, she added.

The United States declared it had eradicated measles — defined as a year of no transmission and a well-functioning surveillance system — by 2000, but occasional outbreaks still occur. More than 50 cases have been detected in the United States this year, according to the CDC.

Erin Blakemore contributed to this report.

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