WHO, CDC report high risk of measles outbreaks as pandemic disrupts vaccination

The world faces a higher risk of measles outbreaks as the pandemic has disrupted routine vaccinations, a World Health Organization (WHO) and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report found.

While annual measles cases dropped 82 percent from 2019 to last year, the report determined that routine vaccinations and surveillance of measles cases also dropped in 2020 as countries faced the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

A total of 75 countries reached more than 90 percent coverage for the initial measles vaccine last year, in a 13 percent drop from 2000 and a 37 percent decrease from 2019. Countries need at least a 95 percent vaccination rate of both doses of the measles vaccine to ensure “high population immunity,” the WHO and CDC noted. 

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Five of the six WHO regions experienced a drop in the first measles vaccine coverage between 2019 and 2020.

Approximately 22.3 million infants did not receive the initial measles vaccine last year — an increase of 3 million from the previous year. 

The 10 countries with the most infants who didn’t receive the measles vaccine are Nigeria, India, Congo, Ethiopia, Indonesia, Pakistan, Angola, the Philippines, Brazil and Afghanistan.

At least 24 immunization campaigns across 23 countries were postponed last year, potentially affecting at least 93 million people.

Coverage with the initial measles vaccine in the past 20 years reached its highest point of 86 percent in 2019 before dipping to 84 percent last year amid the pandemic. The vaccination rate for the second measles shot almost quadrupled between 2000 and 2019 before slipping 1 percentage point last year. 

At the same time, the number of specimens sent to the WHO Global Measles and Rubella Laboratory Network hit its lowest point in more than a decade, as 35 countries did not report rates for the first measles shot and 50 did not report rates for the second measles dose.

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“Increased population susceptibility and suboptimal measles surveillance portend an immediate elevated risk for measles transmission and outbreaks, threatening the already fragile progress toward regional elimination goals,” the report reads. 

The past two decades have seen progress with the estimated number of measles deaths falling 94 percent. Since 2000, the health organizations calculated that measles vaccination prevented about 31.7 million deaths worldwide. 

Despite a goal to eliminate measles in 5 of the 6 WHO regions by 2020, no region has reached and maintained measles elimination. 

The report aligns with previous research from the CDC that found a significant drop in routine child and adolescent vaccinations in the early months of the pandemic.