Measles outbreak feared as coronavirus halts immunization drive
Alok Gupta

Many countries could witness measles outbreaks as the lockdowns and travel restriction imposed to control the new type of coronavirus has delayed routine immunization campaigns, warned a consortium of leading health organizations.

The delay would put more than 117 million children in 37 countries at risk of getting infected with measles. In the last few weeks, 24 countries have already postponed immunization due to restrictions enforced to control coronavirus transmission.

Health systems in the majority of countries are already overwhelmed with a large number of coronavirus cases, leading to the suspension of vaccine-related services for preventable diseases.

Travel restrictions have hampered the transportation of vaccines, forcing health organizations to consider hiring chartered flights.

"If the difficult choice to pause vaccination is made due to the spread of COVID-19, we urge leaders to intensify efforts to track unvaccinated children, so that the most vulnerable populations can be provided with measles vaccines as soon as it becomes possible to do so," said a joint statement by the Measles & Rubella Initiative.

The initiative includes the American Red Cross, U.S. Centres for Disease Control (CDC), UNICEF, UN Foundation and the World Health Organization (WHO).

The highly contagious measles disease infected 10 million globally, causing 140,000 deaths in 2018, a more than 50 percent increase since 2016. While the anti-vaccination campaign in rich countries has failed measles control programs, lack of robust health infrastructure in poor countries hampers the containment efforts.

The disease can be easily controlled with two shots of the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine. But ensuring the second jab among children in developing countries has become a major issue due to the lack of a monitoring system.

Last year, measles caused more than 6,000 deaths in the Democratic Republic of the Congo – a country fighting its largest Ebola outbreak – as the country faced a deadly convergence of diseases.

Brazil, Bangladesh, South Sudan, Nigeria, Ukraine and Kazakhstan are also dealing with a large number of measles cases. Countries forced to delay their immunization drive include Ethiopia, Honduras, Lebanon, Nepal, Bolivia, Chad, Chile, Colombia, Djibouti, Paraguay, Somalia, South Sudan and Uzbekistan.

Even worse, immunization campaigns expected to be launched later in 2020 in an additional 13 countries may not be implemented because of the coronavirus pandemic.

"Children younger than 12 months of age are more likely to die from measles complications, and if the circulation of measles virus is not stopped, their risk of exposure to measles will increase daily," the statement added.

(Cover: A pediatrician vaccinates a one-year-old child in the thigh with the Priorix vaccine – a live virus vaccine against measles, mumps and rubella – in Lower Saxony, Hanover, Germany, August 28, 2019. /AP)