WHO and CDC declare measles global imminent threat, Covid to blame

October 25: Health Minister Andrew Little on today’s health announcements. Video / Mark Mitchell

A combined report from two major public health bodies has declared measles an “imminent threat” to the global community.

Released on Thursday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO) feared that a record decline of measles vaccination rates and persistent large outbreaks meant that the respiratory virus was an “imminent threat in every region of the world”.

WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said it was “absolutely critical” that immunization programs were bought back on track to avoid what he said is a “preventable disease”.

“The paradox of the pandemic is that while vaccines against Covid-19 were developed in record time and deployed in the largest vaccination campaign in history, routine immunization programs were badly disrupted, and millions of kids missed out on lifesaving vaccinations against deadly diseases like measles ,” Ghebreyesus said.

According to the WHO, India, Somalia and Yemen are the three countries with the largest measles outbreak.

Most contagious virus

While measles is thought to be one of the most contagious viruses, the measles, mumps and rubella-containing vaccine administered during childhood is considered the best defense to reduce future outbreaks.

In New Zealand, the shot is free for people born on or after January 1, 1969.

The CDC states that nine out of 10 people who are not vaccinated against the disease will become infected upon exposure.

The virus is transmitted through water droplets released in the sneezes and coughs of infected people. Common symptoms include fever, cold-symptoms, conjunctivitis and red and blotchy rashes that first appear around the face and hairline before spreading elsewhere around the body.

The characteristic rash generally emerges three to four days after the initial symptoms develop.

Measles in NZ

The Ministry of Health says as of October 2022 there are no confirmed cases of measles in New Zealand, but with people traveling overseas, there is a risk of the disease coming into the country.

The last major measles epidemic was in 2019/2020 with more than 2000 cases – the biggest outbreak since 1997.

Case numbers swelled from two outbreaks that particularly affected children under 2, teenagers and young adults aged under 30.

Māori and Pacific people were also hit hard – respectively making up 39 percent and 36 percent of those patients hospitalized.

Vaccination rates were markedly low among those affected: only 6.7 percent of people admitted to hospital were fully vaccinated, and the figure among patients who did not need hospital care was not much better, at 14 percent.

Although the World Health Organization said in 2017 New Zealand had “eliminated” endemic measles, it pointed out at the time there was a risk of future spread because of immunity gaps across the population.

The health ministry website says the best protection against an outbreak is to get immunized to protect yourself, your whānau and to help prevent the virus from spreading.

In August, health experts described how “petrified” they were at record low childhood immunization rates – including for measles – which they fear will fuel deadly new epidemics.

For Māori, just 47 percent of those aged 18 months had full immunization coverage over the past year – a drop of 26 points since the start of the pandemic, and 22 points below the national rate.

To achieve herd immunity, experts say at least 90 percent must be achieved.

“I think worried is an understatement,” said Dr Owen Sinclair (Te Rarawa), a Māori pediatrician at Waitākere Hospital.

“We are petrified. An outbreak would be catastrophic, with many deaths.”

It also emerged earlier this year a $26 million catch-up measles campaign targeted at 300,000 at-risk young adults has hit just 7 percent of its target.

In July 2020, off the back of the measles outbreak that hospitalized 800 people, the Government launched a targeted immunization catch-up campaign to reach an estimated 300,000 unvaccinated 15 to 30-year-olds.

There were about 400,000 measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccines made available and $40m allocated for the rollout (this was later revised to $26m).

The rollout was hampered by the Covid-19 response and in March last year district health boards were directed to refocus on the pandemic and other areas. It was supposed to resume in November and run until the end of June.

At the time it was paused just over 20,000 of those vaccines had been administered.

Figures provided to National Party health spokesman Dr. Shane Reti show after it officially ended in June just 23,595 doses had been administered, or 7 percent of the target.

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