CDC and WHO say measles is “an imminent threat” to the world

A person holding a vial of measles vaccine in May 2019 in Orlando, Florida.

A person holding a vial of measles vaccine in May 2019 in Orlando, Florida. Photo: Paul Hennessy/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Measles vaccination rates have steadily declined around the world since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, leaving millions of children vulnerable to the virus, according to new data in a joint report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO).

Why it matters: The organizations said measles is “an imminent threat in all regions of the world” because it is one of the most contagious human viruses – although it is also completely preventable through vaccination.

  • They said the decline in measles vaccination is also “a significant setback” in global efforts to eliminate the virus.

Using the numbers: In 2021, nearly 40 million children missed their first or second dose of measles vaccine, meaning they are either not vaccinated at all or only partially vaccinated against the virus.

  • According to the CDC and WHO, there were an estimated 9 million measles cases and 128,000 deaths from the virus worldwide in 2021.

What you say: “The paradox of the pandemic is that while vaccines for COVID-19 were being developed in record time and deployed in the largest immunization campaign in history, routine immunization programs were severely disrupted and millions of children were missing out on life-saving shots against deadly diseases like measles,” said WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus in a statement.

  • “The record number of children who are underimmunized and susceptible to measles demonstrates the profound damage immunization systems have suffered during the COVID-19 pandemic,” said CDC Director Rochelle Walensky.
  • “Measles outbreaks illustrate weaknesses in immunization programs, but public health officials can use outbreak response to identify vulnerable communities, understand causes of undervaccination and help provide locally tailored solutions to ensure immunizations are available to all,” added Walensky.

How it works: The CDC and WHO said the world is well below the vaccination level needed to achieve herd immunity to measles, which is estimated at 95% or more of the population.

  • Currently, only 81% of children worldwide have received their first dose of measles vaccine and only 71% of children have received their second dose.
  • They said this is the lowest coverage rate for the first measles dose in the world since 2008.

The big picture: 22 countries experienced “large and disruptive” measles outbreaks last year.

  • Those outbreaks, and “sustained major outbreaks in 2022,” were caused by a drop in vaccination coverage, weakened surveillance systems for the virus, and delays in vaccination efforts caused by the coronavirus pandemic, according to the organizations.
  • Since 2016, 10 countries — including the US — that had previously eradicated measles have had outbreaks and retransmission.

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