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Measles is surging worldwide — we need to act fast to save lives

Measles is surging worldwide — we need to act fast to save lives

Before COVID-19 brought global travel to a halt, I visited the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) with a team of health experts, where I witnessed the devastation wrought by another infectious disease: measles. An outbreak had been ripping through rural villages and cities like Kinshasa for nearly a year. Thousands of children had died. In some districts, fatality rates were as high as 10 percent.

Seeing so many suffer from a disease for which there is a safe, proven and cost-effective vaccine was gut-wrenching. Children were dying simply because they did not have access to vaccines where they lived. That’s unacceptable.

And now, new data reveals that what I saw in the DRC was reflective of a distressing global trend. The World Health Organization (WHO) and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) just released a report that shows global progress against measles is backsliding. Last year saw the highest number of measles cases in 23 years and deaths surged by 50 percent. Measles is spreading in every region of the world.

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While this picture is already bleak, it may get worse as COVID-19 disrupts routine immunizations. An estimated 94 million children are at risk of missing out on life-saving measles vaccines due to pandemic-related disruptions. Of the 41 countries with planned measles vaccination campaigns, only 8 have safely resume immunization activities — leaving millions of children unprotected and at risk.

This is a critical moment in the global fight against measles as vaccination rates stall and progress stagnates. We have the tools and the know-how to stem the tide of outbreaks, and we must do. We’re already dealing with COVID-19; we can’t afford another health crisis. The return of diseases once thought eliminated in many countries and the resurgence of debilitating and deadly illnesses in others puts a significant strain on already-stretched health systems, ultimately making everyone more vulnerable.

That’s why it’s more urgent than ever for the global community to come together to invest in both immediate and long-term strategies to stop measles outbreaks around the world. By doing so, we will reverse the tide for measles and help prepare health systems for the distribution of a vaccine against COVID-19 when one becomes available.

UNICEF and WHO just issued an unprecedented joint Emergency Call to Action, asking for a combined total of US$650 million to urgently respond to growing measles and polio outbreaks around the world. Additionally, the Measles & Rubella Initiative (M&RI) has developed a plan to get us back on track. 

The new Measles and Rubella Strategic Framework is a bold strategy to accelerate the expansion of measles vaccine coverage over the next decade. With a unified, integrated approach, the Framework aims to achieve a world free from measles and rubella. Vaccines only work if enough people get them, which is why the new strategy focuses on closing gaps in vaccine access to bolster community protection. Taken together, these actions will accelerate progress towards achieving and sustaining measles and rubella elimination.

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It’s clear that strong investments to fill critical funding gaps will be needed if we want to build stronger, more equitable immunization access for everyone, everywhere. Interventions must be tailored to the local community context to ensure access challenges from location, resources, misinformation, or instability — like many of those I saw first-hand in DRC — are overcome. 

We know that vaccines are one of the safest, most cost-effective tools we have in public health today. We owe much of the global health progress we have seen over the last two decades to their use. We’ve come too far to watch these important gains erode simply because of a lack of adequate funding. The COVID-19 pandemic has underscored the need for strong investments in health systems and demonstrated just how fast a lack of investment could impact the entire world by allowing global health threats to spiral out of control.

National governments and global funders must urgently answer the call to fill growing funding gaps to stop measles progress from continuing to erode. Strengthened immunization systems that leave no one behind are essential to not only stopping pandemics but diseases that have limited the ability of millions of children to survive and thrive for far too long.

Lori Sloate is the senior director for Global Health at the United Nations Foundation, a founding partner of the Measles & Rubella Initiative.