Measles Cases Are Up 79% Worldwide in 2022 Due to Delays in Childhood Vaccinations, WHO Says

WHO and UNICEF said that the pandemic led people to delay getting their kids vaccinated, creating a "perfect storm for the spread of a disease like measles"

Sick child with red rash spots from measles.
A child with measles. Photo: Getty

With parents delaying getting their kids vaccinated during the COVID-19 pandemic, cases of the measles are now up 79% worldwide this year, the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund (UNICEF) warned on Wednesday.

There have already been 21 "large and disruptive" outbreaks of the measles this year, the health agencies said, with most occurring in Africa and the East Mediterranean region. So far, there have been a reported 17,338 measles cases worldwide in January and February, compared to 9,665 during that same time period in 2021.

"Pandemic-related disruptions, increasing inequalities in access to vaccines, and the diversion of resources from routine immunization are leaving too many children without protection against measles and other vaccine-preventable diseases," the organizations said.

And with most countries removing preventative COVID measures like mask mandates while measles is spreading, the conditions are "ripe" for serious outbreaks.

"It is encouraging that people in many communities are beginning to feel protected enough from COVID-19 to return to more social activities. But doing so in places where children are not receiving routine vaccination creates the perfect storm for the spread of a disease like measles," Catherine Russell, the executive director of UNICEF, said in the release.

Measles, a respiratory virus, can be deadly in small children but is highly preventable with the two-dose vaccine first introduced in 1963. Without the vaccine, though, it spreads quickly and can weaken a child's immune system, making them more susceptible to other diseases like pneumonia.

These outbreaks are a sign that children worldwide are going unvaccinated, Russel said.

"Measles is more than a dangerous and potentially deadly disease. It is also an early indication that there are gaps in our global immunization coverage, gaps vulnerable children cannot afford."

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When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020, 23 million children missed out on basic childhood vaccinations, the organizations said. The continuing pandemic, along with international conflicts in Ukraine, Ethiopia, Somalia and Afghanistan will likely continue to effect vaccination rates.

Last week, the Centers for Disease Control warned that U.S. vaccination rates are down among kindergarten students, with measles vaccinations dropping to 93.6% during the 2020-2021 school year.

"We are concerned that missed routine vaccinations could leave children vulnerable to preventable diseases like measles and whooping cough, which are extremely contagious and can be very serious, especially for babies and young children," Dr. Shannon Stokley, deputy director of the CDC's Immunization Services Division, said.

Since the two-dose, highly effective measles vaccine was first introduced in 1963, cases in the U.S. dropped significantly, and the virus was eventually considered eradicated in the country. But prior to the pandemic, in 2019, the U.S. had significant measles outbreaks and a reported 1,282 cases nationwide, the most since 1992, which health officials said was due to a rise in anti-vaccine rhetoric.

"Measles is preventable and the way to end this outbreak is to ensure that all children and adults who can get vaccinated, do get vaccinated," then-CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield said in June 2019. "Again, I want to reassure parents that vaccines are safe, they do not cause autism. The greater danger is the disease the vaccination prevents."

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