The World Health Organization (WHO) has raised the alarm over the risk of measles outbreaks after a 79% increase in cases in the first two months of this year compared with the same period in 2021.
Disruption to routine childhood immunisation as a result of the pandemic as well as increasing inequalities in access to vaccines is leaving too many children unprotected, the WHO warned in a joint statement with UNICEF.
The increase seen in cases of measles is also a worrying sign that spikes may also been seen in other vaccine-preventable diseases, they warned.
Almost 17,338 measles cases were reported worldwide in January and February 2022, compared to 9,665 during the first two months of 2021.
The risk of further outbreaks increases as social distancing measures relax and as a result of millions of people being displaced due to conflicts and other crises in countries such as Ukraine, Ethiopia, Somalia and Afghanistan, the agencies said.
In February, UK public health officials called on parents to ensure children had received both doses of MMR vaccine after uptake fell to the lowest levels for a decade.
Figures for those having two doses by the age of five years has fallen to 85.5% – well below the WHO target needed to achieve elimination of measles.
Uptake of the first MMR dose had also dropped below 90%, NHS England had warned.
The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation had previously noted that ‘vaccination fatigue’ was impacting routine jabs.
A Government-commissioned survey of 2,000 parents also suggested that many are not aware of the risks measles poses, with almost half not aware that measles can lead to serious complications such as pneumonia and brain inflammation.
In 2020, 23 million children globally missed out on basic childhood vaccines through routine health services.
Catherine Russell, UNICEF executive director said: ‘Measles is more than a dangerous and potentially deadly disease. It is also an early indication that there are gaps in our global immunisation coverage, gaps vulnerable children cannot afford,’ said.
‘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.’
Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO director-general added: ‘The Covid-19 pandemic has interrupted immunisation services, health systems have been overwhelmed, and we are now seeing a resurgence of deadly diseases including measles.
‘Now is the moment to get essential immunisation back on track and launch catch-up campaigns so that everybody can have access to these life-saving vaccines.’