There is now an imminent threat of measles spreading in various regions globally, as the Covid pandemic has led to a steady decline in vaccination coverage and weakened surveillance of the disease, the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Wednesday.
Measles is one of the most contagious human viruses and is almost entirely preventable through vaccination. However, it requires 95% vaccine coverage to prevent outbreaks among populations.
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 the CDC said in a joint report.
While measles cases have not yet gone up dramatically compared to previous years, now is the time to act, the WHO’s measles lead, Dr. Patrick O’Connor, told Reuters.
“We are at a crossroads,” he said Tuesday. “It is going to be a very challenging 12-24 months trying to mitigate this.”
A combination of factors, such as lingering social distancing measures and the cyclical nature of measles, may explain why there has not yet been an explosion of cases despite the widening immunity gaps, but that could change quickly, O’Connor said, pointing out the highly contagious nature of the disease.
The United Nations health agency has already seen an increase in large disruptive outbreaks since the start of the year, rising from 19 to almost 30 by September, he said, adding that he was particularly worried 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 the NBC News affiliate WCMH. All of those cases are in unvaccinated children.
A measles case often starts with a fever, but the illness is typically characterized by a rash that typically 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 up to four days before and after the rash appears, according to the WHO. There is no specific antiviral to treat measles.
The new report estimates that in 2021, around 128,000 people died of measles worldwide.