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Health officials warn of increased risk of measles outbreak after 22 million infants missed their vaccine last year

During the coronavirus pandemic last year, 22 million infants did not get their measles vaccine, according to data from the World Health Organization and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. As a result, the two health agencies are warning of an increased risk of a measles outbreak.

Although the reported number of measles cases dropped by 80% last year, the CDC and WHO said that the ability to track the disease during that time decreased as resources were diverted to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

"Large numbers of unvaccinated children, outbreaks of measles, and disease detection and diagnostics diverted to support COVID-19 responses are factors that increase the likelihood of measles-related deaths and serious complications in children," Kevin Cain, the CDC's global immunization director, said in a statement on Wednesday. "We must act now to strengthen disease surveillance systems and close immunity gaps, before travel and trade return to pre-pandemic levels, to prevent deadly measles outbreaks and mitigate the risk of other vaccine-preventable diseases."

Three million fewer babies were vaccinated against the potentially deadly disease in 2020 than in 2019. Overall, just 70% of infants received both doses of the two-dose vaccine, which the health agencies said is far below the 95% threshold necessary to shield communities from an outbreak.

In addition, a measles vaccine campaign that was scheduled in 23 different countries in 2020 had to be postponed because of the pandemic. As a result, more than 93 million people are vulnerable to the disease, according to the CDC and WHO.

"These supplemental campaigns are needed where people have missed out on measles-containing vaccines through routine immunization programs," the health agencies said on Wednesday.

"While reported measles cases dropped in 2020, evidence suggests we are likely seeing the calm before the storm as the risk of outbreaks continues to grow around the world," said Dr. Kate O'Brien, director of WHO's department of immunization, vaccines and biologicals. "It's critical that countries vaccinate as quickly as possible against COVID-19, but this requires new resources so that it does not come at the cost of essential immunization programs. Routine immunization must be protected and strengthened; otherwise, we risk trading one deadly disease for another."

The measles vaccine is highly effective at preventing the disease, which is one of the world's most contagious human viruses. The vaccine has prevented an estimated 30 million deaths in the past 20 years alone. In 2020, an estimated 7.5 million people had the disease and 60,700 people died from it, the health agencies said.

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