About 22 million babies worldwide missed their first measles shot last year, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization reported this week, the largest drop in 20 years.
Additionally, only 70% of children got the second dose of the two-dose measles vaccine, which is below the 95% vaccination rate needed to stop outbreaks of measles in communities, the organizations said. A large factor was the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on peoples' access to health care.
"Even before the pandemic, we were seeing how even small pockets of low measles immunization coverage could fuel unprecedented outbreaks, including in countries where the disease had been considered eradicated," UNICEF Associate Director for Immunization Ephrem Tekle said in a statement. "And now COVID-19 is creating widening gaps in coverage at a pace we haven't seen in decades."
Measles is one of the most contagious diseases, according to the CDC, and 90% of people in contact with a person who has measles will get it if they don't have immunity. About one in five people in the US who has measles will be hospitalized, the CDC says.
Thanks to the vaccine that prevents the disease, measles was declared eliminated in the US in 2000 (meaning it's not constantly present, though it can still be brought in to the country and spread mainly among unvaccinated or under-vaccinated people). Now it's recommended children get the first dose of vaccine at age 12 to 15 months and the second dose at 4 to 6 years old. The CDC and WHO estimate the measles vaccine has saved about 31.7 million lives since 2000.
Though measles cases fell in 2020, they were likely underreported because of the pandemic's disruption in health care, and the rates now represent the "calm before the storm," WHO Department of Immunization Director Dr. Kate O'Brien said.
False information about the measles vaccine, and the vaccine hesitancy that followed, may have contributed to the 2019 measles outbreaks in the US, which saw the largest number of cases since 1992. The majority of measles cases were among people who weren't vaccinated against measles, the CDC said.
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