As the world grapples with the continuing threat of the coronavirus pandemic, there are growing concerns that declining vaccinations for other infectious diseases, like measles, could spark new outbreaks.
A new report by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), published on Thursday, said cases of measles reached a 23-year-high last year, with deaths climbing by nearly 50 per cent since 2016, killing more than 200,000 people in 2019.
This was due to declining vaccination rates, researchers said.
The WHO said even though fewer cases of measles have been reported so far this year, the coronavirus pandemic has disrupted vaccination efforts to curb measles outbreaks.
“While health systems are strained by the COVID-19 pandemic, we must not allow our fight against one deadly disease to come at the expense of our fight against another,” Henrietta Fore, executive director of the UN’s children’s fund (UNICEF), said in a statement.
In Canada, there are currently no active cases of measles. But experts say a drop in vaccination rates amid lockdowns and restrictions in parts of the country, could have a potential spillover effect on other infectious diseases.
“A lot of kids have not had their routine vaccines because of COVID, because they don’t want to go into the doctor’s office,” Dr. Anna Banerji, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Toronto, told Global News.
“There’s a lot of fear about getting COVID, so people are just staying home and also some doctor’s offices are not even open,” she said.
Measles is a highly contagious respiratory disease that mostly affects children under the age of five.
It is transmitted through respiratory droplets through direct contact or airborne spread when an infected person breathes, coughs or sneezes.
Despite the availability of a safe and effective vaccine, thousands of young children die worldwide each year.
This year, Canada reported only one case of measles, early in February.
The Public Health Agency of Canada urges Canadians travelling outside of the country to consult the travel health notices for information on measles and rubella outbreaks occurring in other countries.
Banerji cautioned that the lower numbers of vaccinations coupled with people moving away from strict public health measures post-COVID-19 could lead to a “resurgence of measles.”
Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief public health officer, said there was a “global concern” about the spread of measles and urged provinces and territories to continue their immunization programs while putting measures in place to reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission.
“We have not seen measles cases or escalation in Canada during the last months, but that doesn’t mean it couldn’t happen,” she said during a press conference on Friday.
The coronavirus pandemic has already overwhelmed health-care systems around the world.
In Canada, hospitalizations reached record levels in the western provinces of British Columbia and Alberta this week.
The country recorded its highest daily jump in infections, adding 4,975 cases on Thursday.
While many parents have been forced to delay routine immunizations for their children because of the pandemic, experts say anti-vaxxers and a wave of misinformation also add to the challenges.
As the pandemic drags on into its ninth month, Kerry Bowman, a bioethicist at the University of Toronto, advised parents not to further delay vaccinations.
“Now that we’re in the long run with COVID-19, we really have to rethink some of the other public and global health factors,” he told Global News.
“Parents need to be reminded that vaccinations matter and they make the whole community safe.”
— With files from David Akin, Global News