• Some 500,000 cases of measles were reported in 180 countries in 2019, the highest number since 2006
  • Measles killed 140,000 people, most of them babies and children, in 2018
  • WHO advised countries to conduct risk-benefit analyses before deciding whether to suspend vaccinations

The World Health Organization warned Tuesday more than 117 million children in 37 countries could miss out on measles vaccines as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, which has forced a halt to routine activities around the world.

Globally 500,000 cases were reported in 180 countries in 2019, the highest number since 2006, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said. Measles is highly contagious, with 90% of unprotected people developing the disease after exposure. Complications include encephalitis, pneumonia, severe diarrhea and dehydration and permanent disability. The vaccination has reduced deaths by 80% since 2000. Children younger than 12 months are particularly susceptible to often fatal complications.

WHO said measles killed more than 140,000 in 2018, most of the victims babies and children. Vaccination campaigns already have been paused in 24 countries to stem the spread of COVID-19 and campaigns in 13 other countries slated for later in the year may have to be suspended. Many of the countries are in areas of active outbreaks.

“The pandemic sweeping the globe requires a coordinated effort and commitment of resources to ensure frontline health workers around the world are protected as they face and respond to this new threat. At the same time, we must also champion efforts to protect essential immunization services, now and for the future,” WHO said in a joint press release with the Measles & Rubella Initiative, which includes the American Red Cross, the CDC, UNICEF and the U.N. Foundation.

WHO recommended pausing immunization campaigns in areas with no active outbreaks and urged governments to “undertake a careful risk-benefit analysis when deciding whether to delay vaccination campaigns in response to outbreaks, with the possibility of postponement where risks of COVID-19 transmission are deemed unacceptably high.”

“If the difficult choice to pause vaccination is made due to the spread of COVID-19, we urge leaders to intensify efforts to track unvaccinated children, so that the most vulnerable populations can be provided with measles vaccines as soon as it becomes possible to do so. While we know there will be many demands on health systems and frontline workers during and beyond the threat of COVID-19, delivering all immunization services, including measles vaccines, is essential to saving lives that would otherwise be lost to vaccine preventable diseases,” the statement said.

In the United States, 12 cases of measles had been reported through April 5, the CDC said. Last year, 1,282 cases were confirmed in 31 states, the highest number since 1992 and the majority among people who had not been vaccinated.

117 million children could miss their measles vaccinations as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Teseum/Flickr