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In the news: Coronavirus derails measles vaccination across the globe

Illnesses from measles and other preventable diseases, like polio and cholera, are expected to rise.

Measles jabs are prepared in Samoa
Measles jabs are prepared in December 2019 in the Samoan village of Le'auva'a as part of a UNICEF-supported vaccination campaign. (Allan Stephen/UNICEF)

More than 117 million children will miss out on measles vaccinations in the coming weeks as the coronavirus forces dozens of countries to cancel immunisation campaigns for the preventable disease, a global health coalition said Monday.

At least 24 countries have already suspended measles immunisation campaigns, according to the Measles and Rubella Initiative, which includes UN agencies like UNICEF and the World Health Organisation, as well as the American Red Cross and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Fears over vaccination campaigns inadvertently spreading the coronavirus could derail plans in another 13 countries, the organisations said.

It’s another sign of how the coronavirus pandemic is spilling over onto other crises. Health authorities say illnesses from preventable diseases like polio, measles, and cholera are expected to rise.

In late March, the WHO recommended that mass vaccination campaigns be suspended while the coronavirus remains a threat.

Earlier this month, the board of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative recommended that countries postpone polio vaccination campaigns until at least June, while Gavi, the vaccine alliance of donors and health agencies, warned of “devastating” knock-on effects for other diseases.

The WHO and health coalitions are still urging countries to continue routine immunisation programmes – where vaccines are usually available in fixed health clinics rather than as part of door-to-door campaigns. But countries facing conflict or poor health systems often rely on frequent mass vaccination programmes to reach children in far-flung areas.

The suspension of measles campaigns comes amid a global surge in the preventable disease – caused primarily by misinformation, poor health services, and conflict or disasters interrupting access to vaccines. There were 140,000 measles deaths and roughly 9.7 million cases in 2018, up from 124,000 deaths and 7.5 million cases the previous year, according to the WHO.

Recent measles outbreaks have erupted in countries including the Democratic Republic of Congo, Madagascar, Ukraine, Chad, Nigeria, the Philippines, and Samoa, where an outbreak late last year hit roughly one in every 50 people on the Pacific Island nation.

– Irwin Loy

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