Measles infections worldwide have risen dramatically from their historic low in 2016, ringing alarm bells for public health experts around the globe. In 2019, the global death rate for measles was more than 50 percent higher than in 2016, and total cases increased by a whopping 556%, according to a joint report released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and World Health Organization (WHO). Worldwide, measles cases in 2019 were the highest they’ve been in 23 years. Even as the coronavirus pandemic rages at the forefront of the world’s attention, it’s essential to protect against other dangerous and deadly infectious diseases as well. That means it’s crucial for people to stick to the recommended vaccination schedule for themselves and their kids as long as they have access to vaccines—even during the pandemic.
In the U.S., there were 1,282 cases of measles in 2019—which is the highest number in the country since 1992, according to the CDC. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, the WHO says that 310,000 measles cases and 6,000 measles deaths were reported in 2019. In Madagascar, Unicef states that 244,607 cases were reported between August 2018 and November 2019, and 1,080 people, mostly children under the age of 14, died. Samoa, Ukraine, and Brazil also experienced significant measles outbreaks. These figures represent “a significant step backward in progress toward global measles elimination,” the report says.
Measles is a very contagious and dangerous disease. Symptoms include a rash, high fever, cough, runny nose, and eyes that are red and watery, according to the CDC. One in five people diagnosed with measles will end up hospitalized, and up to three in 1,000 people with measles will die, according to the CDC. Children under five, adults over 20, pregnant people, and those who are immunocompromised are most at risk of complications. The virus spreads through the air when a person with measles coughs or sneezes. It can linger in the air for up to two hours after the person with the infection leaves, and it’s so contagious that 9 out of 10 people who are unvaccinated or otherwise vulnerable will get the illness if exposed. Like coronavirus, it’s possible for a person to spread this potentially deadly virus before they know they’re sick.
Across the world, the main reason behind the increase in measles infections has been inadequate vaccination rates, according to the report. As SELF previously reported, herd immunity achieved through vaccination is critically important in preventing measles outbreaks. Because the virus is so infectious, 95 percent of people in a community need to be vaccinated in order to prevent an outbreak, William Moss, M.D., M.P.H., executive director of the International Vaccine Center at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, previously told SELF. In 2018, the national U.S. measles vaccination rate among children 19 to 35 months was just 91.5 percent, according to the CDC. But this percentage varies among communities, and the disease is more likely to spread—and has—when there are clusters of unvaccinated people.
The excellent news here is that the measles vaccine works really, really well, and is also incredibly safe. Two doses of the MMR vaccine—which also protects against mumps and rubella, two other infectious diseases—is 97 percent effective against measles, the CDC explains. This is why the CDC strongly recommends that all children get two doses of the MMR vaccine, first when they’re 12 to 15 months old, then again when they’re four to six years old. The organization also recommends that adults make sure they’re up to date on all their vaccines, including MMR.
The truth is that vaccine rates in this country tend to be high overall, according to the CDC. Most people do get their children vaccinated because they realize how important it is for their families’ health and that of their communities. Only a relatively small number of people refuse to vaccinate their children, and a slightly larger group is “vaccine hesitant,” which essentially translates into having an openness to vaccines but also wariness or mistrust about their safety and efficacy. But, because of the aforementioned highly contagious nature of measles, and the high threshold of vaccination required for herd immunity, having enough vaccine-hesitant or anti-vaccine people refusing these vaccines for their kids can still lead to outbreaks.
Another pressing reason behind these outbreaks that’s impossible to ignore: Experts are concerned the coronavirus is leading to further delay in measles vaccination. This is why the CDC recommends continuing all routine vaccination, even during the COVID-19 pandemic. “We are worried that there are new gaps in immunity opening because of COVID on top of those that were already there,” Natasha Crowcroft, M.D., Ph.D., senior technical adviser for measles and rubella at the WHO, told the New York Times. But in some countries, it’s not simply a matter of people making sure to get their vaccines on time even during the pandemic. More than 94 million people are at risk of missing vaccines because of paused health campaigns in 26 countries as of November 2020, according to the WHO.
“While health systems are strained by the COVID-19 pandemic, we must not allow our fight against one deadly disease to come at the expense of our fight against another,” Henrietta Fore, UNICEF executive director, said in a statement. That means countries that have paused their vaccination campaigns due to COVID-19 need the resources to resume those campaigns, Fore says—and people with access to vaccinations should still get themselves and their children vaccinated on schedule, even during the pandemic.