UNICEF, WHO warn of measles outbreaks
A sudden spike in cases earlier in 2022 has caused alarm
Published: Apr 28, 2022 05:15 PM
A health worker administers a measles vaccine at Al-Sabah Children's hospital in Juba, capital of South Sudan, Feb. 4, 2020. (Photo: Xinhua)

A health worker administers a measles vaccine at Al-Sabah Children's hospital in Juba, capital of South Sudan, Feb. 4, 2020. (Photo: Xinhua)

Measles cases spiked around the world in the first two months of 2022, triggering worries about even larger outbreaks, the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) and the World Health Organization (WHO) warned Wednesday.

Almost 17,338 measles cases were reported worldwide in January and February 2022, compared with 9,665 during the first two months of 2021. As measles is very contagious, cases tend to show up quickly when vaccination levels decline, said UNICEF.

As of April 2022, the two agencies reported 21 large and disruptive measles outbreaks around the world in the last 12 months. Most of the measles cases were reported in Africa and the East Mediterranean region. The figures are likely higher as the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted surveillance systems globally, with potential underreporting.

Countries with the largest measles outbreaks in the past 12 months include Somalia, Yemen, Nigeria, Afghanistan, and Ethiopia. Insufficient measles vaccine coverage is the major reason for outbreaks, wherever they occur, said UNICEF.

Coverage at or above 95 percent with two doses of the safe and effective measles vaccine can protect children against measles. However, COVID-19 pandemic-related disruptions have delayed the introduction of the second dose of the measles vaccine in many countries.

The risk for large outbreaks has increased as communities relax social distancing practices and other preventive measures for COVID-19. In addition, with millions of people being displaced due to conflicts and crises, disruptions in routine immunization and COVID-19 vaccination services, lack of clean water and sanitation, and overcrowding increase the risk of vaccine-preventable disease outbreaks, warned UNICEF.

Apart from its direct effect on the body, which can be lethal, the measles virus also weakens the immune system and makes a child more vulnerable to other infectious diseases like pneumonia and diarrhea, it said.

"Measles is more than a dangerous and potentially deadly disease. It is also an early indication that there are gaps in our global immunization coverage, gaps vulnerable children cannot afford," said UNICEF Executive Director Catherine Russell. 

"It is encouraging that people in many communities are beginning to feel protected enough from COVID-19 to return to more social activities. But doing so in places where children are not receiving routine vaccination creates the perfect storm for the spread of a disease like measles."

In 2020, 23 million children missed out on basic childhood vaccines through routine health services, the highest number since 2009 and 3.7 million more than in 2019, said UNICEF.