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UNICEF: Global surge of measles a growing threat

Released at: 15:23, 01/03/2019

UNICEF: Global surge of measles a growing threat

Photo: UNICEF

Vietnam is among countries with more cases of measles in 2018 than in 2017, according to recent announcement from UNICEF.

by Nghi Do

UNICEF announced on March 1 in Hanoi that global cases of measles are surging to alarmingly high levels, led by ten countries that account for more than 74 per cent of the total increase and several others that had previously been declared measles-free.

Globally, 98 countries reported more cases of measles in 2018 than in 2017, eroding progress against this highly preventable but potentially deadly disease.

Vietnam had 1,177 confirmed measles cases in 2018, twice as many as in 2017. Most cases related to a lack of vaccination due to parents deciding to delay vaccinations of their children.

In late 2018, the Ministry of Health launched an additional measles-rubella vaccination campaign for 4.2 million children aged between one and five in vulnerable areas in 57 cities and provinces. UNICEF called on parents to make an extra effort to consult health officials to ensure that their children’s immunization status is up to date to protect them against the disease. UNICEF also advocated health authorities sustain investment to build trust among the population and to focus on reaching the poorest, most marginalized communities, including internal migrant populations.

“This is a wake-up call. We have a safe, effective and inexpensive vaccine against a highly contagious disease - a vaccine that has saved almost a million lives every year over the last two decades,” said Ms. Henrietta H. Fore, UNICEF’s Executive Director. “These cases haven’t happened overnight. Just as the serious outbreaks we are seeing today took hold in 2018, a lack of action today will have disastrous consequences for children tomorrow.”

Measles is highly contagious, more so than Ebola, tuberculosis, or influenza. The virus can be contracted by someone up to two hours after an infected person has left a room. It spreads through air and infects the respiratory tract, potentially killing malnourished children or babies too young to be vaccinated. Once infected, there is no specific treatment for measles, so vaccination is a life-saving tool.

In response to these outbreaks, UNICEF and its partners are supporting governments to urgently reach millions of children in countries around the globe.

In Ukraine, UNICEF has provided ongoing support to accelerate routine immunization across the country and address vaccine hesitancy, including additional efforts to stop the most recent outbreak that has claimed 30 lives since 2017. In February, the Ministry of Health, with UNICEF’s support, launched an immunization drive at schools and clinics in the worst-hit Lviv region in western Ukraine, where negative attitudes toward immunization and previous shortages in vaccine supply have resulted in low vaccination rates.

In the Philippines, the government, with support from UNICEF and partners, will conduct a campaign to vaccinate 9 million children against polio and measles across 17 regions. Using social media, campaigners plan to encourage apprehensive parents and health workers.

In Brazil, from August to September 2018, the government carried out a campaign against polio and measles, targeting more than 11 million children under five. UNICEF encouraged people to get vaccinated, and trained health monitors working in migrant shelters for Venezuelans. UNICEF has included the measles vaccine as part of the Municipal Seal program that covers 1,924 municipalities.

In Yemen, where years of conflict led to an outbreak, local authorities, with support from UNICEF, WHO, and GAVI, vaccinated more than 11.5 million children in February.

Poor health infrastructure, civil strife, low community awareness, complacency, and vaccine hesitancy in some cases have led to these outbreaks in both developed and developing countries. In the US, the number of measles cases increased six-fold between 2017 and 2018, reaching 791. More recently, the US has seen outbreaks in New York and Washington State.

“Almost all of these cases are preventable, and yet children are getting infected even in places where there is simply no excuse,” said Ms. Fore. “Measles may be the disease, but, all too often, the real infection is misinformation, mistrust and complacency. We must do more to accurately inform every parent, to help us safely vaccinate every child.”

To fight measles, UNICEF is issuing an urgent appeal to governments, healthcare providers, and parents to do more to contain the disease by:

  • Understanding that vaccines are safe and effective and can save a child’s life;
  • Vaccinating all children between the ages of six months to five years during outbreaks;
  • Training and equipping health workers so they can provide quality services;
  • Strengthening immunization programs to deliver all life-saving vaccines.

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