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WHO warns of measles outbreaks as countries fail to reach elimination target

Health worker administers measles vaccine to a child.

Kampala, Uganda | THE INDEPENDENT | No new countries have achieved measles elimination target, just a month to the end of the year. This is according to the World Health Organization-WHO.

By the end of 2020, 81 countries had succeeded in sustaining their measles elimination status despite the pandemic.

WHO reports in its latest statement that fifteen countries are yet to introduce measles second dose in their national immunization schedules, which they say leaves children and adolescents in those countries prone to measles outbreaks.

The new report which is co-authored by the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also shows that generally, measles cases have fallen compared to previous years even as progress towards measles elimination continues to decline and the risk of outbreaks mounting.

In 2020, more than 22 million infants missed their first dose of measles vaccine, 3 million more than in 2019, marking the largest increase in two decades and creating dangerous conditions for outbreaks to occur.

Compared with the previous year, reported measles cases decreased by more than 80 percent in 2020, something they partly attribute to interruptions in transport due to COVID-19 which led to laboratories testing the lowest number of samples ever in the last ten years.

“Large numbers of unvaccinated children, outbreaks of measles, and disease detection and diagnostics diverted to support COVID-19 responses are factors that increase the likelihood of measles-related deaths and serious complications in children,” said Kevin Cain, CDC’s Global Immunization Director.

“We must act now to strengthen disease surveillance systems and close immunity gaps, before travel and trade return to pre-pandemic levels, to prevent­­ deadly measles outbreaks and mitigate the risk of other vaccine-preventable diseases.”

Experts now say lower reported measles cases in 2020 must not mask the growing risk of measles to children worldwide.

While the ability of countries to ensure children receive both recommended doses of measles vaccine is a key indicator of global progress toward measles elimination and capacity to prevent the spread of the virus, the report shows vaccine coverage to have fallen. Only 70 percent of children received their second dose of measles vaccine, well below the 95 percent coverage needed to protect communities from the spread of the measles virus.

Adding to the worsening of immunity gaps worldwide, 24 measles vaccination campaigns in 23 countries, originally planned for 2020, were postponed because of the COVID-19 pandemic leaving more than 93 million people at risk of the disease.

With this grim picture, countries are being urged to conduct supplemental vaccination campaigns to reach people that missed out on routine immunization at the height of the lockdowns.

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