43% increase in measles deaths from 2021-2022: WHO

Number of cases rose by 18% in a year; 15 more countries reported measles outbreaks in 2022

By Kiran Pandey
Published: Friday 17 November 2023
Photo: iStock__

The number of measles deaths worldwide increased by 43 per cent from 2021-2022, following years of falling vaccination rates, according to a new assessment by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United States’ Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In 2022, there were an estimated 136,000 measles deaths globally, most of which were among children.

The number of measles cases across the world also increased by 18 per cent during the same period, the report said, bringing the total number of infections to nine million.

Measles, a highly contagious viral disease, spreads through respiratory droplets transmitted by the breath, sneeze or cough of an infected person. It may result in serious illness or even death. Some 37 countries saw significant or disruptive measles outbreaks in 2022, compared to 22 nations in 2021.

Read more: Imminent threat: WHO warns 40 million children susceptible to measles as outbreak intensifies in India

Twenty-eight countries in the WHO’s Africa Region reported outbreaks last year, along with six in the Eastern Mediterranean, two in Southeast Asia and one in Europe. 

Measles elimination is under threat, as the disease has resurged in numerous countries that achieved or were close to achieving the goal of elimination, according to the Strategic Advisory Group of Experts on Immunization

“The increase in measles outbreaks and deaths is staggering, but unfortunately, not unexpected given the declining vaccination rates we’ve seen in the past few years,” said John Vertefeuille, director of the CDC’s global immunisation division, in a statement.

Rise in vaccination coverage; but not enough

Measles can be avoided with two vaccination doses. However, despite a little rise in vaccination coverage worldwide from 2021 to 2022, 33 million children were still not vaccinated against measles: Around 22 million did not receive their first dose of the vaccine and an additional 11 million did not receive their second. 

Read more: Measles cases double in 1st 2 months of 2022: What does this warn us of

In 2022, about 83 per cent of the world’s children received their first dose of the measles vaccine. This is the lowest since 2008. During the year, 74 per cent of the world’s children received a second dose of the measles vaccine. These figures are far below the 95 per cent coverage of two doses required to keep communities safe from outbreaks. 

Low-income countries — where the risk of measles-related deaths is highest — have the lowest vaccination rate of 66 per cent, indicating no recovery at all from the backslide during the pandemic.

Among the 22 million children who did not receive their first dose of the measles vaccination in 2022, more than half are residents of just 10 countries: Madagascar, Nigeria, Pakistan, Angola, Brazil, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, India, Indonesia, and Philippines.

Since 2015, the first dose (also known as measles-containing-vaccine first-dose or MCV1) coverage rate in Africa has remained unchanged. In 2021, MCV1 coverage was less than 80 per cent in almost half of the 47 countries in the region. Although it has grown, the second dosage coverage rate is still only about 40 per cent, stated WHO in the weekly report released in June 2023.

To eradicate measles and rubella by 2023, India has plans to vaccinate 95 per cent of the population with two doses of the measles and rubella vaccine under the Intensified Mission Indradhanush, a flagship routine immunisation campaign of the Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare.

“The lack of recovery in measles vaccine coverage in low-income countries following the pandemic is an alarm bell for action. Measles is called the inequity virus for good reason. It is the disease that will find and attack those who aren’t protected,” said Kate O’Brien, WHO director for immunisation, vaccine and biologicals. “Children everywhere have the right to be protected by the lifesaving measles vaccine, no matter where they live,” she said.

Read more: India has fourth highest number of measles cases in the world: WHO

WHO and CDC advised nations to identify and immunise every child against measles and other diseases that can be prevented by vaccination.  Immunisation has a direct impact on the United Nations-mandated Sustainable Development Goal 3 (good health and wellbeing).

The agencies called upon international stakeholders to support nations in immunising their most vulnerable populations. All global health partners at the international, regional, national and local levels must also make investments in strong monitoring systems and outbreak response capabilities in order to quickly identify and contain outbreaks, they urged.

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