The centuries-old disease now becoming an imminent global threat

Archbishop Jerome Lloyd OSJVPosted by

Measles is preventable, but vaccination coverage has declined across the world since the beginning of Covid.

Next year, the thing to keep an eye on in global health is measles – not just the progress of the virus itself, but the disease as a marker of how badly lockdowns and other fallout from the Covid pandemic have set things back. 

There have been recent outbreaks in countries as diverse as Ethiopia, India, Tajikistan and Poland. Last year, 22 countries experienced large outbreaks, with an estimated nine million cases and 128,000 deaths worldwide. Countless children will have suffered terrible neurological damage as a result, which will permanently blight their lives. Measles is, of course, entirely preventable. But vaccination coverage has steadily declined across the world since the beginning of the Covid pandemic because of disruptions to healthcare, leaving us in our present situation. 

It is not the only childhood vaccine that millions have missed, but because of the speed at which measles spreads it will be the first we notice next year. In the areas hit, healthcare will have been found wanting and other preventable disease outbreaks will likely follow. ‘The paradox of the pandemic is that while vaccines against Covid were developed in record time and deployed in the largest vaccination campaign in history, routine immunisation programmes were badly disrupted, and millions of children missed out on life-saving vaccinations,’ WHO director-general Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has said. 

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It would be a big mistake to think that these are just problems facing developing countries. The UK lost its measles-free status in 2018 after vaccine rates slipped and cases surged. And the latest data suggest vaccine coverage for the second dose slipped further during the pandemic, to just 85.5 per cent at five years, with 43 cases recorded in the year to September 2022. Only Tajikistan and Turkey recorded more in the WHO European Region. 

In November, the organisation warned that there is now an imminent threat of measles spreading to different regions around the world as Covid has led to a steady decline in vaccination coverage and weakened surveillance of the disease. ‘Plummeting measles vaccination rates should set off every alarm,’ Elizabeth Cousens, president and CEO of the United Nations Foundation, has said. ‘There is no time to waste. We must work urgently to ensure life-saving vaccines reach every last child.’ 

Ephrem Tekle Lemango, Unicef chief of immunisation, added: ‘For three years, we have been sounding the alarm about the declining rates of vaccination and the increasing risk to children’s health globally… The time for decisive action is now.’ Countries that fully vaccinate 95 per cent or more of their population create herd immunity against measles and quickly become measles-free. But the world is well under that threshold at the moment, as is the UK. It’s a marker of how much damage Covid has done to our health services – and how much we have to do in 2023 to make up for lost ground.

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The centuries-old disease now becoming an imminent global threat

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