WHO, UNICEF warn about ‘perfect storm’ for measles in children

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UNICEF and the World Health Organization (WHO) are warning communities about what they say is a “perfect storm” of conditions for measles outbreaks in children. 

The agencies said that reported worldwide measles cases increased by 79% in the first two months of 2022, compared to the same time period last year. 

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Almost 17,338 measles cases were reported worldwide in January and February 2022, compared with 9,665 during the first two months of 2021. 

Countries with the largest outbreaks include Somalia, Yemen, Nigeria, Afghanistan and Ethiopia.

There have been 21 large and disruptive outbreaks in the last 12 months, from April 2021 through April 2022, with most reported in Africa and the East Mediterranean region. That number is likely to be much higher than reported.

Africa recorded a 400% increase in measles, to more than 17,000 cases between January and March.

The WHO said the increase in cases is a “worrying sign of a heightened risk for the spread of vaccine-preventable diseases and could trigger larger outbreaks” that impact millions of children. 

The agency noted that COVID-19 pandemic-related disruptions, vaccine inequity and the diversion of resources from routine immunization are leaving children without protection from measles and other vaccine-preventable diseases.

The risk has been increased further by relaxed COVID-19 mitigation measures and displacement due to conflicts and crises. 

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“As measles is very contagious, cases tend to show up quickly when vaccination levels decline. The agencies are concerned that outbreaks of measles could also forewarn outbreaks of other diseases that do not spread as rapidly,” it said. 

“The COVID-19 pandemic has interrupted 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 for decades to come,” Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director-general of the WHO, said in a statement. “Now is the moment to get essential immunization back on track and launch catch-up campaigns so that everybody can have access to these life-saving vaccines.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the measles virus spreads through the air and is very contagious. 

It can also be serious, causing serious health complications, especially in children younger than 5. 

About one in five people who get measles in the U.S. will be hospitalized, one out of every 1,000 will develop brain swelling and one to three out of 1,000 will die – even with the best care.

The WHO notes that the measles virus weakens the immune system, making a child more vulnerable to other infectious diseases for months after the infection. 

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Two doses of the measles vaccine can protect children against measles, but disruptions have delayed the introduction of the second dose of the measles vaccine in many countries.

In 2020, 23 million children missed out on basic childhood vaccines through routine health services: the highest number since 2009 and 3.7 million more than in 2019.

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