Cases of measles have surged by nearly 80 percent worldwide so far this year, a dire consequence of pandemic-related disruptions to childhood vaccinations, the United Nations Children’s Fund and the World Health Organization said.
The agencies warned on Wednesday that millions of children’s lives were at risk because other vaccination campaigns have slowed as well. Some 23 million children missed out on basic childhood vaccines in 2020 that would ordinarily be delivered through routine health services, the agencies’ statistics show — 3.7 million more than in 2019.
“Measles is more than a dangerous and potentially deadly disease,” Catherine Russell, executive director of UNICEF, said in a statement. “It is also an early indication that there are gaps in our global immunization coverage, gaps vulnerable children cannot afford.”
About 17,300 measles cases were reported around the world in January and February 2022, compared with about 9,700 in the first two months of 2021, according to the new data, which probably undercounts the true number of infections.
There have been 21 large measles outbreaks around the world in the last 12 months, the agencies said, most of them in Africa or the Middle East, including nations like Ethiopia, Somalia, Yemen, Nigeria and Afghanistan.
“We knew that this was going to be one of the cascading consequences of the pandemic,” said Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security, who was not involved in preparing the report. “When the world gets fixated on one problem, you can’t divert and not expect to bear those consequences. Most people don’t appreciate measles as an infectious disease threat in the world.”
Nineteen measles vaccination campaigns, aimed at inoculating more than 70 million children, have been postponed during the pandemic so far, the agencies said. Overall, nearly 60 vaccination campaigns of all kinds in 43 countries have been suspended, affecting about 200 million people, most of them children. Regular vaccination schedules have been disrupted for diseases like diphtheria, tetanus, and polio.
Dr. Adalja said in an interview that many countries had limited public health resources, and could not manage to do coronavirus and measles vaccination campaigns at the same time.
“The larger issue is that there’s just not public health infrastructure to do this,” he said. “The fact is that even such a simple task like that might be too difficult for health care systems that are struggling to only do one.”
The United States was not spared from these kinds of failures, Dr. Adalja said, pointing to a decline in childhood vaccinations and a rise in reported cases of sexually transmitted diseases in the country during the pandemic, as well as the growing opioid crisis. “There was limited bandwidth for public health workers everywhere,” he said.
The U.S. experienced its worst measles outbreak in decades in 2019.
Experts are keeping a close eye on war-torn Ukraine, which already had Europe’s highest rate of measles infection before the pandemic, with more than 115,000 reported cases and 41 deaths from 2017 to 2019.
According to the World Health Organization, for a country to keep measles outbreaks from becoming epidemics, it needs to have at least 95 percent of its population vaccinated, achieving what scientists call herd immunity. It takes two doses of vaccine, given at least a month apart, to protect against measles, which is caused by a virus that primarily attacks children. Serious complications from a measles infection can include brain swelling, diarrhea, severe respiratory infection and blindness.
“It will be really daunting to erase the deficit” in childhood vaccination, Dr. Adalja said. “In the interim, people are going to get measles, and die from measles.”