Essential measles vaccinations around the world are being postponed indefinitely for millions of children as healthcare systems focus on coronavirus and countries enforce lockdowns. The UN says governments must act.
Over 117 million children are at risk of missing out on the potentially life-saving measles vaccine because of the coronavirus pandemic, the UN announced on Tuesday. Immunizations have already been delayed in at least 24 countries because of increased pressure on healthcare systems and social distancing measures.
Overall, immunization delays in 37 different countries are expected in the coming weeks, the Measles and Rubella Initiative (M&RI) estimates in a new report. The initiative is backed by the World Health Organization (WHO) and UNICEF, the UN agency for children.
"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," the group said in the statement.
While measles deaths have dropped markedly worldwide since the introduction of the vaccine, the WHO says that 140,000 people died of measles in 2018. The "highly contagious" virus is especially fatal for children under the age of five.
"While we know there will be many demands on health care systems and front-line workers during and beyond the threat of COVID-19, delivering all immunization services, including measles vaccines, is essential to saving lives," the M&RI said in the statement.
Bangladesh, Brazil, the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan, Nigeria, Ukraine and Kazakhstan have all seen large outbreaks in recent years, and are now seen as particularly at risk.