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WHO warns 40 million children susceptible to measles as outbreak intensifies in India

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There has been a ‘steady decline’ in measles vaccination coverage since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the WHO says  

Nearly 40 million children missed a measles vaccine dose in 2021. Photo: iStock

The COVID-19 pandemic may have caused a resurgence in measles globally, the World Health Organization (WHO) hinted November 23, 2022, as the Centre rushed teams to three states across India to rein in outbreaks.

The United Nations (UN) body also called measles an imminent threat in every region of the world in a statement uploaded onto its website.

“Declines in vaccine coverage, weakened measles surveillance, and continued interruptions and delays in immunization activities due to COVID-19, as well as persistent large outbreaks in 2022, mean that measles is an imminent threat in every region of the world,” the statement read.

The UN body’s statement comes even as 13 children have died in Maharashtra over the last month due to a measles outbreak, according to media reports.

‘COVID-19 to blame’

WHO said there had been a ‘steady decline’ in measles vaccination coverage since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Nearly 40 million children missed a measles vaccine dose in 2021. Of this, 25 million children missed their first dose and an additional 14.7 million children missed their second dose, according to a joint publication by WHO and the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

“This decline is a significant setback in global progress towards achieving and maintaining measles elimination and leaves millions of children susceptible to infection,” the WHO statement said.

That year, nearly 61 million measles vaccine doses were postponed or missed due to COVID-19-related delays in immunisation campaigns in 18 countries.

There were an estimated 9 million cases and 128,000 deaths from measles worldwide in the second year of the COVID-19 pandemic. Twenty-two countries experienced large and disruptive outbreaks.

WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said:

The paradox of the pandemic is that while vaccines against COVID-19 were developed in record time and deployed in the largest vaccination campaign in history, routine immunisation programmes were badly disrupted, and millions of kids missed out on life-saving vaccinations against deadly diseases like measles.


“Getting immunisation programmes back on track is absolutely critical. Behind every statistic in this report is a child at risk of a preventable disease,” he added.

Measles is one of the most contagious human viruses but is almost entirely preventable through vaccination. Coverage of 95 per cent or greater of two doses of measles-containing vaccine is needed to create herd immunity in order to protect communities as well as achieve and maintain measles elimination.

“The world is well under that, with only 81 per cent of children receiving their first measles-containing vaccine dose, and only 71 per cent of children receiving their second measles-containing vaccine dose,” according to WHO.

These are the lowest global coverage rates of the first dose of measles vaccination since 2008, although coverage varies by country, the UN body noted.

The CDC and WHO urged coordinated and collaborative action from all partners at global, regional, national, and local levels. This will prioritise efforts to find and immunise all unprotected children, including those who were missed during the last two years.


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