A growing number of children around the world are vulnerable to measles as vaccination rates have fallen to their lowest level since 2008, leading health experts warned on Wednesday.
According to a report by the World Health Organization and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Covid-19 pandemic has severely disrupted routine vaccination services, resulting in millions of children missing their measles vaccine.
About 81% of children worldwide received their first dose of the measles vaccine in 2021, up from 86% in 2019 before the start of the Covid pandemic. According to the report, this leaves 25 million children vulnerable to measles.
Public health experts estimate that 95% of children need to be vaccinated against measles to prevent outbreaks. The measles vaccine comes in two doses, but the first dose is the most important as it is 93% effective at preventing disease.
Over the past 20 years, steady progress has been made towards eradicating measles. According to the report, global measles deaths have fallen by 83% from 761,000 in 2000 to 128,000 in 2021 as vaccination coverage has increased.
But CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky and WHO chief Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus expressed concern in separate statements Wednesday that measles could make a comeback as vaccination rates have been falling for two years.
The US officially eliminated measles more than 20 years ago, but travelers sometimes bring the virus into the country. This can lead to outbreaks if vaccination rates in their communities are too low, according to the CDC.
Measles is one of the most contagious diseases known to man. It poses a serious health risk to children under the age of 5, adults over the age of 20, pregnant women and people with compromised immune systems.
The virus spreads when an infected person coughs or sneezes and can remain airborne for up to two hours. Measles is so contagious that if a person becomes infected, they will pass it on to 90% of their close contacts who are not protected, according to the CDC.
According to the CDC, one in five unvaccinated people who contract measles will be hospitalized. One in 20 unvaccinated children who catch measles will develop pneumonia, 3 in 1,000 will develop brain swelling, and up to 3 in 1,000 will die of respiratory or neurological complications.
Symptoms begin with a high fever that can rise to over 104 degrees, a cough, and a runny nose. Then white spots appear in the mouth and a rash of red spots breaks out over the body.
The two-dose vaccine is 97% effective in preventing measles. The first dose is given between the ages of 1 year and 15 months and the second dose between the ages of 4 and 6 years.