As Measles Cases Surge, Vaccines Are the Best Way to Keep Kids Safe

December 16, 2019

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More contagious than the Ebola virus, measles is making a deadly global comeback, with devastating outbreaks in all regions. More than 140,000 people died from the vaccine-preventable disease in 2018 — most of them infants and children under age 5 — according to new estimates from the World Health Organization (WHO) and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Reported cases of measles rose by 200 percent from 2018 to 2019.   

 

Potential complications from measles include pneumonia and encephalitis (a swelling of the brain), as well as lifelong disability — permanent brain damage, blindness and hearing loss. New evidence indicates that contracting measles can have further long-term health impact, damaging the body's immune system for months or even years following infection. 

 

Unvaccinated babies and young children are at greatest risk from measles

 

"We've had a safe and effective measles vaccine for over 50 years," said Dr. Robert Linkins, the CDC's Branch Chief of Accelerated Disease Control and Vaccine Preventable Disease Surveillance and Chair of the Measles & Rubella Initiative. "These estimates remind us that every child everywhere needs — and deserves — this lifesaving vaccine." 

 

As one of the founders of the Measles & Rubella Initiative, UNICEF works with partners to vaccinate vulnerable children all over the world, including conflict zones. In the first eight months of 2019, UNICEF reached 28.9 million children with measles vaccines. 

 

 

Above, Senerita, 9, receives her measles shot in Leauvaa Village, Samoa. The item behind her (bearing the UNICEF logo) is a cold box, a vital piece of equipment for maintaining the cold chain — a series of temperature controls necessary to maintain vaccine potency from manufacture to inoculation. © UNICEF/UNI232405/Stephen

 

In November, Samoa declared a state of emergency to combat an alarming spike in measles cases

 

The Samoan Government declared a state of emergency in November, closing schools and placing restrictions on public gatherings to combat a deadly surge in measles cases in the South Pacific islands. Only 31 percent of Samoans were vaccinated when the outbreak began in October, at which point UNICEF rushed delivery of vaccines, syringes and other medical supplies to Samoa, Fiji and Tonga. 

 

Above, Fonoifafo McFarland-Seumanu, a registered nurse who also holds the titles Miss Pacific Islands 2019 and Miss Samoa, administers a measles vaccine to 1-year-old Sugalu in Vaitele, a town on the Samoan island of Upolu. © UNICEF/UNI235772/Stephen

 

Just two months into Samoa's measles outbreak, a major vaccination campaign had reached 93% of the population

 

On Dec. 11, 2019, the Samoan Government announced that 93 percent of the population had been vaccinated. With 5,331 cases of measles and 73 measles-related deaths reported to date, it is hard to find a family in this nation of less than 200,000 who has not been affected.

 

 

Above, a mobile UNICEF vaccination team travels by boat on the Kasai River to reach remote villages in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). © UNICEF/UNI229154/Nybo 

 

UNICEF vaccine teams go the distance to protect every child from measles

 

Five countries accounted for nearly half of all measles cases in 2018: the DRC, Liberia, Madagascar, Somalia and Ukraine. More than a quarter of a million people in the DRC have been infected with measles in 2019 — over three times the number of cases in 2018.  Immunization services in the embattled nation have been compromised by a number of issues; poor infrastructure and vaccine shortages are only partly to blame. There is also community mistrust of vaccines and vaccinators. Violence and insecurity, including attacks on health centers, continue to hinder efforts.

 

 

Above, UNICEF-supported health worker Nsiri Lowoso vaccinates 3-month-old Zoe with the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine as Zoe’s mother, Arellete Ytshika, holds him in Lubumbashi, DRC. UNICEF provides vaccines for children in most of the health centers in Lubumbashi, the DRC's second largest city. © UNICEF/UN0270015/Prinsloo

 

The world's fastest moving measles epidemic is in the Democratic Republic of Congo

 

Since January 2019, measles has killed more than 5,000 people in the DRC — more than twice the number of lives lost to Ebola — making the DRC home to the world's fastest-moving measles epidemic. Millions of Congolese children miss out on vaccinations; in 2018, measles immunization coverage there was only 57 percent. Over the past year, UNICEF has supplied more than 8.6 million doses of measles vaccine for emergency response efforts deployed by multiple organizations. 

 

 

Above, UNICEF staff members unload measles vaccines and related medical supplies at Nadi International Airport in Fiji. © UNICEF/UNI231673/Stephen

 

95% vaccine coverage is needed to prevent further measles outbreaks 

 

Coverage of the measles vaccine has stagnated over the past decade, paving the way for current outbreaks. In 2018, over 19 million children worldwide had missed out on their first dose of the measles vaccine by their second birthday. And while 86 percent of children had received the first dose of measles vaccine, fewer than 70 percent received the second recommended dose — lower than the 95 percent coverage needed to prevent outbreaks.

 

In 2019, the U.S. reported its highest annual number of cases since 1992. Four countries in Europe — Albania, Czechia, Greece and the U.K. — lost their measles elimination status following protracted outbreaks. 

 

"The unacceptable number of children killed last year by a wholly preventable disease is proof that measles anywhere is a threat to children everywhere," said UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore. "When children go unvaccinated in significant numbers, entire communities are at risk." 

 

Learn more about the alarming surge in documented measles cases around the world and how you can help protect children. 

 

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Top photo: A student at Aguket Primary School in Uganda's Busia District prepares to be vaccinated against measles, mumps, rubella and polio during a 2019 nationwide immunization campaign run by the Ugandan Government with support from UNICEF and WHO. © UNICEF/UNI240291/Abdul