By Express News Service
NEW DELHI: An increase in measles cases in January and February 2022 is a worrying sign of a heightened risk for the spread of vaccine-preventable diseases and could trigger larger outbreaks, particularly of measles affecting millions of children in 2022, warn WHO and UNICEF.
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, the acute viral respiratory illness, and other vaccine-preventable diseases, they said.
They further said as millions of people were displaced due to conflicts and crises including in Ukraine, Ethiopia, Somalia and Afghanistan, disruptions in routine immunization and Covid-19 vaccination services, lack of clean water and sanitation, and overcrowding had increased the risk of vaccine-preventable disease outbreaks.
Almost 17,338 measles cases were reported worldwide in January and February 2022, compared to 9,665 during the first two months of 2021. Apart from its direct effect on the body, which can be lethal, the measles virus also weakens the immune system and makes a child more vulnerable to other infectious diseases like pneumonia and diarrhoea. Most cases occur in settings that have faced social and economic hardships due to Covid-19, conflict, or other crises, and have chronically weak health system infrastructure and insecurity.
“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, which vulnerable children cannot afford,” said Catherine Russell, UNICEF Executive Director.
“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.”
As of April 2022, the agencies report 21 large and disruptive measles outbreaks around the world in the last 12 months. The figures are likely higher as the pandemic has disrupted surveillance systems globally, with potential underreporting.
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.
Countries with the largest measles outbreaks since the past year include Somalia, Yemen, Nigeria, Afghanistan and Ethiopia.
“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,” said Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the WHO.
“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,” he said.