Measles infection rates have declined over the past two decades, although it remains a deadly threat, especially to unvaccinated young children in developing countries. But there were an estimated 9 million cases and 128,000 deaths worldwide last year, up from 7.5 million cases and 60,700 in 2020. That increase came amid poorer disease surveillance and vaccine campaigns delayed by the pandemic, the WHO and CDC said.
Vaccination can also bring benefits to one’s community, a concept known as herd immunity. About 95 percent of a population needs to be vaccinated with two doses for herd immunity to occur, but only about 81 percent of children worldwide have received their first dose and 71 percent their second, the two agencies said.
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Measles, which begins with cold symptoms, undermines the immune system, making those infected more susceptible to other illnesses. In some cases, seizures and blindness are possible, according to the UK’s National Health Service.
The WHO has previously warned that the drop in measles infections at the start of the pandemic was the “calm before the storm”.
“Routine immunization must be protected and strengthened,” despite the coronavirus, Kate O’Brien, WHO’s director of immunization, vaccines and biologics, said last year. Otherwise, “we risk trading one deadly disease for another.”
Hur Jian, an infectious disease expert at Yeungnam University Medical Center in South Korea, said the recent uptick in global travel predicts a likely return of measles, even in wealthy countries with higher vaccination rates. Younger generations less exposed to the disease may have weaker defenses, she added.
The United States declared it had eradicated measles — defined as a year of no transmission and a well-functioning surveillance system — by 2000, but occasional outbreaks still occur. More than 50 cases have been detected in the United States this year, according to the CDC.
Erin Blakemore contributed to this report.