WHO issues urgent call: Vaccinate for measles, polio during COVID pandemic

‘COVID-19 has had a devastating effect on health services, especially immunization services’

A vial of measles, mumps and rubella vaccine and an information sheet is seen at a hospital (photo credit: REUTERS/BRIAN SNYDER)
A vial of measles, mumps and rubella vaccine and an information sheet is seen at a hospital
(photo credit: REUTERS/BRIAN SNYDER)
The World Health Organization and the United Nations Children’s Fund have issued an urgent call to avert major measles and polio epidemics by vaccinating against them as the coronavirus disrupts immunization.

“COVID-19 has had a devastating effect on health services and in particular immunization services, worldwide,” WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said Friday in a press release. “But unlike with COVID, we have the tools and knowledge to stop diseases such as polio and measles. What we need are the resources and commitments to put these tools and knowledge into action. If we do that, children’s lives will be saved.”

Millions of vulnerable children are at heightened risk for these preventable diseases, he said.

“We cannot allow the fight against one deadly disease to cause us to lose ground in the fight against other diseases,” UNICEF executive director Henrietta Fore said. “Addressing the global COVID-19 pandemic is critical. However, other deadly diseases also threaten the lives of millions of children.”

Measles, considered among the most contagious of all infectious diseases, causes severe flu-like symptoms and a characteristic bumpy rash. However, one in 1,000 patients may die of measles. Those at highest risk are children under the age of five and people with immunosuppression disorders.

The Health Ministry describes on its website a rare yet lethal complication that may appear several years following the onset of measles and lead to severe and irreversible damage to the central nervous system, which includes mental deterioration and convulsions.

According to the WHO, during 2000-2018, measles vaccinations prevented 23.2 million deaths.

Polio is described by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as a “disabling and life-threatening disease” that can infect people’s spinal cord and cause paralysis of various parts of their bodies.

More than 18 million people are walking today who would have been paralyzed by polio thanks to vaccination, the WHO said.

In recent years, there has been a global resurgence of measles with ongoing outbreaks worldwide.

In general, measles cases have been on the rise for the past several years, spiking by more than 300% in the first three months of 2019 compared with 2018. However, according to the WHO, in 2019 there were 216,662 cases worldwide between March and May, while in 2020 there were 23,973 during those months, an 89% decrease.

Measles mortality data for 2019 would be released soon and show the “continued negative toll” that sustained outbreaks are having in many countries around the world, according to the joint WHO and UNICEF press release.

Ever since the introduction of measles vaccination in Israel in 1967, there has been a steady decrease in the number of patients. However, outbreaks sometimes still occur in children who are not vaccinated, mostly a consequence of the disease being imported from abroad, the Health Ministry said on its website.

According to Dr. Eyal Leshem, director of the Center for Travel Medicine and Tropical Diseases at Sheba Medical Center in Tel Hashomer, the last large measles outbreak was brought to Israel from London when a haredi (ultra-Orthodox) young man attended a wedding there and infected several people, who then spread the disease here.

“Measles has been largely eliminated in Israel,” Leshem said during a discussion on the subject in July. “It only happens when people come from abroad and enter Israel unvaccinated. This has happened several times in the Orthodox community.”

Between March 2018 and the end of May 2019, more than 4,250 Israelis contracted measles, the Health Ministry reported.

With the borders closed since March, Israel has not had any measles cases this year, Leshem said.

Three Israelis died from measles between November 2018 and August 2019: an 18-month-old toddler who was not vaccinated, an 82-year-old woman and a 43-year-old flight attendant who contracted it while working on a flight from New York. The toddler was the first recorded measles-related death in Israel in 15 years.

In 2013, wild polio virus was found in the sewage of various parts of the country, which led the Health Ministry to reinstitute the oral polio vaccine that it had halted years before. Ultimately, no one was infected, and the WHO declared Israel once again polio free in 2015.