Measles vaccination coverage has steadily declined since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a joint publication by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
In 2021, a record high of nearly 40 million children missed a measles vaccine dose: 25 million children missed their first dose, and an additional 14.7 million children missed their second dose.
The agencies wrote, “this decline is a significant setback in global progress towards achieving and maintaining measles elimination and leaves millions of children susceptible to infection.”
“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 immunization programs were badly disrupted, and millions of kids missed out on life-saving vaccinations against deadly diseases like measles,” said WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.
“Getting immunization programs back on track is absolutely critical. Behind every statistic in this report is a child at risk of a preventable disease.”
The situation is grave, the agencies said, adding that measles is one of the most contagious human viruses but is almost entirely preventable through vaccination.
Coverage of 95% or greater of two doses of measles-containing vaccine is needed to create herd immunity in order to protect communities and achieve and maintain measles elimination.
The world is well under that, according to WHO, with only 81% of children receiving their first measles-containing vaccine dose and only 71% of children receiving their second measles-containing vaccine dose.
These are the lowest global coverage rates of the first dose of measles vaccination since 2008, although the coverage varies by country.
In 2021, there were an estimated nine million cases and 128,000 deaths from measles worldwide as 22 countries experienced large and disruptive outbreaks.
The report found that declines in vaccine coverage are primarily due to interruptions and delays in immunization activities due to COVID-19. In addition, in 2021, nearly 61 million measles vaccine doses were postponed or missed due to COVID-19-related delays.
The CDC and WHO said immunization delays increase the risk of measles outbreaks and urged coordinated and collaborative action from all partners from global to local levels to prioritize efforts to find and immunize all unprotected children, including those who were missed during the last two years.
“The record number of children under-immunized and susceptible to measles shows the profound damage immunization systems have sustained during the COVID-19 pandemic,” said CDC Director Dr. Rochelle P. Walensky.
“Measles outbreaks illustrate weaknesses in immunization programs, but public health officials can use outbreak response to identify communities at risk, understand causes of under-vaccination, and help deliver locally tailored solutions to ensure vaccinations are available to all.”