Measles is an “imminent threat” worldwide, WHO and CDC warn

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Measles, a preventable but highly infectious disease, could be on the verge of a comeback after a lull in the immediate months following the emergence of the coronavirus, the World Health Organization and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said on Wednesday.

Describing measles as an “imminent threat in every region of the world,” the two public health authorities said in a report that nearly 40 million children missed the vaccine last year. They said 25 million children did not receive their first dose, while another 14.7 million children missed the second injection, a record number of missed vaccinations.

The number of people infected with measles has decreased over the past two decades, although it remains a deadly threat, especially for unvaccinated young children in the developing world. However, there were an estimated 9 million cases and 128,000 deaths worldwide last year, up from 7.5 million cases and 60,700 in 2020. This increase came at a time of poorer disease surveillance and vaccination campaigns due to the pandemic delayed, WHO and CDC said.

Vaccination can also bring benefits to one’s community, a concept known as herd immunity. About 95 percent of the population must be vaccinated with two doses to achieve herd immunity, but only about 81 percent of children worldwide received their first dose and 71 percent received their second, the two authorities said.

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Measles, which begins with cold-like symptoms, undermines the immune system, making those infected more susceptible to other illnesses. According to Britain’s National Health Service, seizures and blindness are possible in some cases.

The WHO has previously warned that the drop in measles infections early in the pandemic was the “calm before the storm”.

“Routine immunization must be protected and strengthened” despite the coronavirus, Kate O’Brien, the WHO’s director of immunization, vaccines and biologicals, said last year. Otherwise, “we risk trading one deadly disease for another.”

Hur Jian, an infectious disease expert at South Korea’s Yeungnam University Medical Center, said the recent uptick in global travel portends a likely return of measles even in rich countries with higher vaccination rates. Younger generations, who have had less exposure to the disease, may have weaker defenses, she added.

The United States claimed to have eradicated measles — defined as no transmission for one year and a well-functioning surveillance system — in 2000, but occasional outbreaks still occur. More than 50 cases have been identified in the United States this year, according to the CDC.

Erin Blakemore contributed to this report.

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