Measles cases are spiking globally
Here's what you need to know about the outbreaks and the impact it's having on children
04 May 2022
The number of reported worldwide measles cases has increased by 79 per cent in the first two months of 2022 compared to the same time last year. It’s a worrying sign of an increased risk for the spread of the highly contagious virus and other vaccine-preventable diseases. And there are fears this reported increase is the beginning of large measles outbreaks globally. Here’s what you need to know about the current situation.
The World Health Organization (WHO) and UNICEF describe the current condition for measles outbreaks as a perfect storm. Why?
A number of factors are contributing to what’s being called a perfect storm. Pandemic-related disruptions, increasing inequalities in access to vaccines and the diversion of resources from routine immunization all play a role. Too many children right now are being left without protection against measles and other vaccine preventable diseases. As a result, the risk of large outbreaks has increased.
In 2020, 23 million children missed out on all basic childhood vaccines. That’s the highest number seen since 2009 and 3.7 million more than in 2019.
The risk is also heightened as many communities have relaxed social distancing practices that were implemented during the height of the pandemic. That gives the measles virus a chance to spread faster among unprotected communities.
Children across the world continue to be caught up in conflicts. Does that put them at greater risk of measles outbreaks?
Absolutely. Millions of children right now are being displaced by crises in countries including Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Somalia and Ukraine. In these countries there have been disruptions in immunization and other essential child health services. Many children are living in overcrowded conditions. These factors increase the risk of an outbreak occurring and the severity of the outbreak when it happens.
Children caught up in these situations are also more likely to face a lack of clean water and sanitation. That all increases the risk of outbreaks of other diseases too.
Where specifically are these outbreaks being seen?
As we mentioned, conflict and instability contribute to these outbreaks. Countries with the largest measles outbreaks in the past year include Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Somalia and Yemen. As of April 2022, 21 large and disruptive measles outbreaks have been reported in the past year alone. And the reality is that the actual number of cases is likely much higher. That’s because the pandemic has disrupted surveillance systems and that can result in substantial underreporting of cases.
What impact can measles have on a child?
Measles is potentially a deadly disease. The virus has a direct effect on the body, which can be lethal. The virus causes fever and a distinctive rash that starts on the face and spreads over the whole body. In some cases, severe complications can include pneumonia, severe diarrhea, blindness, encephalitis (brain swelling) and death. It can also weaken the immune system of a child and make them more vulnerable to other infections long after recovering from measles. This phenomenon is known as immunity amnesia.
What needs to happen to prevent more measles outbreaks?
The coronavirus pandemic has interrupted vaccination campaigns around the world, including for measles. As we rebuild from the pandemic, it’s imperative that there’s a commitment to building stronger health systems, making sure that every child has access to the routine immunizations they need to be healthy.
When we talk about stronger health systems, that means an increased number of trained healthcare workers, additional vaccination sites in underserved communities, more robust health records and effective messaging around vaccines.
You can play your part as well. As UNICEF marks World Immunization Week, we’re celebrating all the people who over the course of many decades have played a pivotal role in protecting children through the creation, distribution and administration of vaccines. Learn more about the campaign, show your gratitude for these heroes and add your voice to the message that vaccines create a long life for all.