Measles cases have risen nearly 80 percent worldwide this year, the UN said on Wednesday, warning that the rise of the “canary in a coal mine” disease indicates outbreaks of other diseases are likely on the way.
The coronavirus pandemic has interrupted vaccination campaigns for non-COVID diseases around the world, creating a “perfect storm” that could endanger the lives of millions of children, the United Nations children’s agency UNICEF and the United Nations said World Health Organization in a statement.
More than 17,300 cases of measles were reported worldwide in January and February, according to new data from UN agencies, compared with about 9,600 in those months last year.
In the past 12 months to April, there have been 21 major and disruptive measles outbreaks, most in Africa and the Eastern Mediterranean, the data shows.
Christopher Gregory, senior health adviser in UNICEF’s immunization division, told AFP that because measles is the “most contagious disease preventable by vaccines,” it often serves as a warning sign.
“Measles is what we call the tracer, or the canary in the coal mine, that really shows us where those weaknesses are in the immunization system,” he said.
He said yellow fever was one of the diseases that could increase next time, after increasing cases were reported in West Africa.
“We are particularly concerned about those countries that are most vulnerable, where health care systems are already struggling, where they are still trying to deal with the impact of COVID on top of these outbreaks,” he said.
Somalia recorded by far the most measles cases in the past 12 months with more than 9,000, UN data shows, followed by Yemen, Afghanistan, Nigeria and Ethiopia – all countries battling some form of conflict.
There are also fears that the war in Ukraine could lead to a resurgence in the country after it recorded the highest number of measles in Europe between 2017 and 2019.
Gregory said it had been very difficult to keep up with a disease in Ukraine since the start of the war, adding that the main concern was “what we could be missing”.
Impact ‘felt for decades’
More than 23 million children missed routine vaccinations in 2020 as the COVID pandemic eased, the largest number in more than a decade.
The UN agencies said 57 vaccination campaigns in 43 countries that had been delayed at the start of the pandemic had still not been completed, affecting 203 million people – most of them children.
COVID also continues to put pressure on healthcare facilities, dragging staff and attention away from vaccination for long-standing deadly diseases.
“The impact of these disruptions to immunization services will be felt in the coming decades,” WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in the 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.”
Gregory said it was time to put the vaccination of children at “at least the same level of priority as ending the COVID vaccination”.
Measles is a disease caused by a virus that mainly affects children. The most serious complications are blindness, brain swelling, diarrhea and severe respiratory infections.
A vaccination coverage of at least 95 percent is the best way to prevent the spread, although many countries are lagging far behind that goal — Somalia is just 46 percent, according to UN data.
© Agence France Presse