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Measles deaths see a surge worldwide, CDC data reveals

Global health bodies in more than 100 nations are uniting to vaccinate children after COVID-19 waves severed supplies, shuttered clinics, and overburdened health services.

HQ Team

November 17, 2023: The number of countries battling measles outbreaks has increased to 37 in 2022 from 22 in 2021, marking a 68% increase in the disease spread, according to a report published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

New data published in the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Reports has marked out four regions in Africa and the Eastern Mediterranean region with the largest outbreaks. In number terms, over 136,000 people, most of them children, died of the highly contagious disease last year. This is inspite of a most effective vaccine available against the disease.

The CDC estimates that 63% of measles deaths occurred in Africa, 29% in the WHO Eastern Mediterranean region, and 7% in the WHO South-East Asia region.

Measles can result in death in children and complications like brain damage or blindness.

“It’s really the accumulation of people who haven’t been vaccinated against measles. The COVID-19 pandemic added an enormous amount of strain to health systems that were already struggling to deliver routine immunizations,” said the CDC’s Cynthia Hatcher, head of the agency’s measles elimination team for the African region.

Disease inequity

The Pandemic slowed down access to the vaccine in most vulnerable regions.  In low-income countries, vaccination coverage has gone down from 71% in 2019 to 66% in 2022. Vaccine coverage has decreased from 86% in 2019 to 81 % in

2019 saw a resurgence of the virus, playing havoc with years of efforts to eradicate the disease. The Pandemic put a halt to the spread of the disease but now the resurgence in occurrence due to a disturbance in the vaccine process has officials worried.

Measles is airborne and one of the most contagious human viruses known to science, and any gap in immunity leads to an immediate uptick in its spread.  “From a disease-control point of view, we say, you know, measles will find communities that have low vaccination coverage, or susceptible persons,” Dr Peter Strebel, a communicable disease said in an interview to VaccinesWork.

World measles vaccine coverage

The World Health Organisation considers a 95% immunisation coverage rate safe from measles; the world currently is standing at 83%. Thirty-three million children missed at least one of two necessary doses of measles vaccination in 2022. Twenty-two million of them didn’t receive even their first.

Half of the children who received no measles vaccine in 2022 lived in just ten countries, and six of those – the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, India, Madagascar, Nigeria and Pakistan – are classed as lower-income countries.

“Measles is called the inequity virus for good reason,” said Kate O’Brien, WHO’s Director for Immunization, Vaccine and Biologicals, reflecting on the new figures in a statement.

In the US, vaccination exemptions have reached the highest on record nationwide among kindergartners, the CDC reported. An estimated 250,000 kindergarten children are at risk of measles.

2019 saw one of the largest outbreaks within the U.S. since the virus was declared “eliminated” from the country in 2000.

Almost all parts of the world are witnessing a surge in the virus due to gaps in vaccination. Because it’s so infectious, measles tend to be the first pathogen to exploit any gap in a population’s immune defenses, but it also acts as a harbinger to other preventable infectious diseases such as diphtheria, pertussis, and more.

“We’re already seeing this with outbreaks of diphtheria and type 1 circulating vaccine-derived poliovirus,” said epidemiologist Dr Stephen Sosler. “Both of these are rare and only occur when routine immunisation (RI) coverage levels are persistently low.” 

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