Measles is an "imminent threat" around the world, according to a new joint report released Wednesday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization.
Despite a two-dose vaccine that is more than 97% effective at preventing infection being available for decades, gains made at beating back the potentially dangerous childhood disease have been lost during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The report found that in 2021, nearly 40 million children -- a record-high -- missed a dose of the measles vaccine. Specifically, 25 million missed their first dose and 14.7 million missed their second dose.
"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 life-saving vaccinations against deadly diseases like measles," said Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General, in a statement.
"Getting immunization programs back on track is absolutely critical. Behind every statistic in this report is a child at risk of a preventable disease," the statement continued.
To prevent the disease from spreading and to achieve herd immunity, the CDC and WHO say at least 95% of children need to receive the vaccine.
However, just 81% of children globally have received the first dose and 71% have received the second dose, the lowest coverage worldwide seen since 2008.
Consequently, there were 9 million cases of measles and 128,000 deaths around the world with at least 22 countries experiencing "large and disruptive outbreaks."
"The record number of children under-immunized and susceptible to measles shows the profound damage immunization systems have sustained during the COVID-19 pandemic," CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said in a statement.
"Measles outbreaks illustrate weaknesses in immunization programs, but public health officials can use outbreak response to identify communities at risk, understand causes of under- vaccination, and help deliver locally tailored solutions to ensure vaccinations are available to all."
No region of the world has achieved and sustained measles elimination, the report found. Since 2016, at least 10 countries that had previously eliminated measles reported outbreaks – including the U.S.
Measles is an incredibly contagious disease. According to the CDC, one infected patient can infect at least 10 close contacts who are not protected either through masking or vaccination.
Measles complications can range from non-threatening, including rashes, to severe, such as viral sepsis, pneumonia or brain swelling.
Prior to the measles vaccine, an estimated 3 to 4 million Americans were infected annually with measles, 48,000 were hospitalized and 400 to 500 died, the CDC says.
"Plummeting measles vaccination rates should set off every alarm," Elizabeth Cousens, president and CEO of the United Nations Foundation, said in a statement. "Tens of millions of children are at risk of this deadly, yet entirely preventable disease until we get global vaccination efforts back on track. There is no time to waste. We must work urgently to ensure life-saving vaccines reach every last child."