THE coronavirus pandemic could lead to mass outbreaks of the measles as global vaccination programmes are put on hold during the current crisis.
Unicef says 117 million youngsters in 37 countries may not get immunised as COVID-19 forces social distancing and piles pressure on health services.
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Measles immunisation campaigns in 24 countries have already been delayed as medics look for ways to combat coronavirus and many more may be postponed putting children in dozens of countries at risk.
The revelations come from the Measles & Rubella Initiative (M&RI), which is backed by the World Health Organisation and the UN children’s fund Unicef.
“If the difficult choice to pause vaccination is made due to the spread of COVID-19, we urge leaders to intensify efforts to track unvaccinated children, so that the most vulnerable populations can be provided with measles vaccines as soon as it becomes possible to do so,” it said in a statement.
“While we know there will be many demands on health systems and frontline workers during and beyond the threat of COVID-19, delivering all immunisation services, including measles vaccines, is essential to saving lives.”
WHAT IS MEASLES? HOW TO SPOT THE SIGNS AND SYMPTOMS
Measles is a highly infectious viral illness that can be very unpleasant and sometimes lead to serious complications.
It’s now uncommon in the UK because of the effectiveness of vaccination.
Anyone can get measles if they haven’t been vaccinated or they haven’t had it before.
It usually clears in 7 to 10 days but can lead to other serious complications.
Initial symptoms include:
- cold-like symptoms like runny nose, sneezing and a cough
- sore, red eyes
- small grey-white spots on the inside of the cheeks
- aches and pains
A few days later a red-brown, blotchy rash will appear, usually beginning on the head or upper neck before spreading.
You’ll most likely feel most ill the first few days the rash appears.
About one in every 5,000 people will die from measles.
Complications are more likely to develop in:
- babies younger than a year old
- children with a poor diet
- children with a weakened immune system
The most common complications include diarrhoea and vomiting, ear infections, eye infection, pneumonia and bronchitis.
But measles can also lead to other complications, although these are rare:
- brain infections
- eye problems and vision loss
- heart and nervous system problems
- miscarriage or still birth
- premature birth
- low birth weight
There is no specific treatment.
Your GP will probably suggest resting at home and waiting for it to clear.
You can ease your symptoms with pain killers, but always speak to your GP first.
You can avoid measles by getting vaccinated.
One dose of vaccine can be given to a baby when they are 12-13 months old and a second before they start school.
Countries where vaccination levels are higher have less chance of the disease spreading.
Source: NHS Choices
COVID-19 has killed more than 120,000 people and left countries around the world in virtual lockdown as they try to halt the spread of the novel coronavirus which causes it.
But in its shadow, a surge in measles outbreaks poses another major global health threat.
The World Health Organization (WHO) said in December that measles had infected nearly 10m people in 2018 and killed 140,000, mostly children, in what it described as “an outrage”.
The viral disease is highly contagious but can be prevented by mass immunisation, which would normally mean babies and children being vaccinated as part of routine health services.
With the fight against COVID-19 focused on keeping health workers safe from infection, the WHO has recommended governments pause immunisation campaigns – such as those against measles – where there is no active outbreak.
In many parts of Africa, medical aid projects that might normally include measles and other vaccine campaigns have stalled as countries have closed their borders and limited routine health services due to the pandemic.
The M&RI group said it supports the need to protect communities and health workers from COVID-19, but warned that this should not mean that children permanently miss out.
“Urgent efforts must be taken now … to prepare to close the immunity gaps that the measles virus will exploit,” it said.
The disease, which causes coughing, rashes and fever, can be prevented by two doses of the mumps, measles and rubella (MMR) vaccine, available free to all young children in the UK.
Here, 95 per cent of five-year-olds have had the first jab – the World Health Organisation (WHO) target – but only 87.4 per cent have had the second.
And as measles is highly infectious even small declines in uptake can have an impact, say experts.
“Immunisation is essential to saving children’s lives and guidelines from the WHO are clear that wherever it can be done safely governments should maintain high levels of routine immunisation coverage during the coronavirus pandemic,” said Joanna Rea, Director of Advocacy, Unicef UK.
“Delays in receiving the required two doses of the MMR is a serious threat to children’s health so it is critical that all children, especially the most vulnerable, can access routine vaccinations.
“It’s imperative that they continue in a timely manner, and health practitioners and families are supported to ensure this essential service continues safely.
“Having lost its measles-free status in 2019, the UK is not safe from a measles outbreak.
“Disruptions to routine vaccine services will increase the risk of children contracting deadly diseases, compound the current pressures on the national health services and risks a second pandemic of infectious diseases.”
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