A ‘perfect storm’ could turn measles into a nightmare by 2022, WHO and UNICEF warn

A child suffering from measles is being treated at a hospital in Manila, Philippines, on May 4, 2019.

A child suffering from measles is treated on a hospital on May 4, 2019 in Manila, Philippines.
PhotoEzra AcayaGetty Images

the once almost vanquished disease is measles are making a worrying comeback. This week, the World Health Organization and UNICEF reported that global cases of the viral disease have so far increased by nearly 80% in 2022 compared to last year. Without immediate action, the conditions are “ripe” this year for a large-scale resurgence of the vaccine-preventable disease, they warn.

According to data collected approximately 17,000 measles cases had been reported by the organizations in the first two months of 2022 – a 79% increase from cases reported during the same period in 2021. Most cases come from countries in Africa and the Mediterranean, such as Somalia, Yemen and Afghanistan. And as of April 2022, they have tracked 21 major outbreaks in the past 12 years months.

Measles is a highly contagious disease (more so than even the latest Omicron variant of the coronavirus). So in unprotected populations, it can spread quickly and cause widespread disease. And given the early start, WHO and UNICEF fear millions of cases could happen this year. For context, there were about 860,000 cases reported in 2019 – the highest annual number since 1996.

Characters from measles infection include flu-like symptoms along with a clear rash that usually starts on the face a few days later. Although most people do not develop serious complications, it can be fatal, especially for younger malnourished children. In 2019, more than 200,000 people were estimated to have attended murdered by measles, usually children under the age of five. Recently it has also been apparently that even a mild form of measles can effectively reset the immune system, causing us to forget, at least temporarily, our immunity to other infectious diseases.

Despite the threat, measles is easily preventable, thanks to a highly effective vaccine (97% effective with the full two doses) that provides lifelong protection against infection. Vaccination has steadily eroded the global incidence of measles over the past few decades, and for a time it seemed that measles be eradicated. But because the germ is so contagious, it requires high vaccination rates in a population — at least 95% — to provide herd immunity and protect those who are too young or otherwise unable to be vaccinated. And sadly, lately the world has lost ground by vaccinating everyone, leading to the… return of measles in many areas, including the US, although it mortal remains locally eliminated here.

In recent years of the pandemic, there have been lower reported cases of measles but also further gaps in vaccination coverage. Adding to the problems is the ongoing warfare in Afghanistan and more recently Ukraine, which have disrupted routine vaccination programs and led to mass displacement of refugees. These pandemic and war-related disruptions, along with the return to social contact for many, are likely to send measles exploding back on the global stage, the WHO and UNICEF warn.

“It is encouraging that people in many communities are beginning to feel sufficiently protected from COVID-19 to return to more social activities. But doing this in places where children are not routinely vaccinated creates the perfect storm for the spread of a disease like measles,” said Catherine Russell, UNICEF e.executive ddirector, in a statement.

In 2020 alone, according to their data, about 23 million children missed their recommended vaccines, a number higher than in 2019. And unless we can catch up quickly, measles this year is likely to become the kind of nightmare it used to be.

“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 in the coming decades,” said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, d.director-ggeneral of the WHO† “Now is the time to get essential immunization back on track and launch catch-up campaigns so that everyone has access to these life-saving vaccines.”

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