There is now an imminent threat of measles spreading in several regions worldwide as the Covid pandemic has led to a steady decline in vaccination coverage and weakened surveillance of the disease, the World Health Organization and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Wednesday.
Measles is one of the most contagious human viruses and is almost completely preventable by vaccination. However, it requires 95% vaccine coverage to prevent outbreaks in the population.
A record high of nearly 40 million children missed a measles vaccine dose in 2021 due to hurdles created by the Covid pandemic, the WHO and CDC said in a joint report.
While the number of measles cases has not yet risen dramatically compared to previous years, now is the time to take action, Dr. Patrick O’Connor, WHO’s measles leader, told Reuters.
“We are at a crossroads,” he said Tuesday. “It’s going to be a very challenging 12-24 months to mitigate this.”
A combination of factors, such as continued social distancing measures and the cyclical nature of measles, may explain why there hasn’t been an explosion of cases despite widening immunity gaps, but that could soon change, O’Connor said, pointing to its highly contagious nature of the disease.
The United Nations health agency has already seen an increase in major disruptive outbreaks since the start of the year, from September 19 to nearly 30, he said, adding that he was particularly concerned about parts of sub-Saharan Africa.
Last week, the public health department in Columbus, Ohio, reported a measles outbreak with 24 active cases, according to NBC News affiliate WCMH. All of those cases are in unvaccinated children.
A case of measles often begins with a fever, but the disease is usually characterized by a rash that usually begins to spread from the face and neck after a few days. The virus can linger in the air and on surfaces for up to two hours, and an infected person can transmit the virus for up to four days before and after the rash appears, the WHO said. There is no specific antiviral drug to treat measles.
The new report estimates that by 2021, about 128,000 people died from measles worldwide.