ATLANTA, Ga. — Health officials are warning that the risk of a measles outbreak is mounting after more than 22 million infants missed their first vaccine dose in 2020.
That’s 3 million more babies than in 2019, marking the largest increase in two decades and creating dangerous conditions for outbreaks to occur, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO).
Additionally, the CDC says only 70% of children received their second dose of the measles vaccine, which is well below the 95% coverage needed to protect communities from the spread of the measles virus.
Compared to 2019, reported measles cases actually decreased by more than 80% in 2020, but the CDC says measles surveillance also deteriorated with the lowest number of specimens sent for laboratory testing in over a decade. This was likely the result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Large numbers of unvaccinated children, outbreaks of measles, and disease detection and diagnostics diverted to support COVID-19 responses are factors that increase the likelihood of measles-related deaths and serious complications in children,” said Kevin Cain, MD, CDC’s Global Immunization Director.
The CDC says weak measles monitoring, testing and reporting jeopardize countries’ ability to prevent outbreaks of the highly infectious disease.
“We must act now to strengthen disease surveillance systems and close immunity gaps, before travel and trade return to pre-pandemic levels, to prevent deadly measles outbreaks and mitigate the risk of other vaccine-preventable diseases,” said Cain.
Even though reported measles cases dropped in 2020, officials say evidence suggests we are likely seeing a calm before the storm as the risk of outbreaks continues to grow around the world.
“It’s critical that countries vaccinate as quickly as possible against COVID-19, but this requires new resources so that it does not come at the cost of essential immunization programs. Routine immunization must be protected and strengthened; otherwise, we risk trading one deadly disease for another,” said Dr Kate O’Brien, Director of WHO’s Department of Immunization, Vaccines and Biologicals.
Measles is one of the world’s most contagious viruses, but officials say it’s almost entirely preventable through vaccination.
In the last 20 years, the measles vaccine is estimated to have averted more than 30 million deaths globally. Estimated deaths from measles dropped from around 1,070,000 in 2000 to 60,700 in 2020. The estimated number of measles cases in 2020 was 7.5 million globally.