Gary Jones in Hong Kong

Measles killed an estimated 207,500 people last year after a decade-long failure to reach optimal vaccination coverage, the World Health Organization and United States Centers for Disease Control said in a joint report on Thursday, with the Covid-19 pandemic further setting back vaccination efforts this year.

Last year’s death toll attributed to measles was 50 per cent higher than the historic low reached in 2016. All WHO regions saw an increase in cases in 2019, adding up to a global total of 869,770, the highest number of cases for 23 years.

More than 94 million people are currently at risk of missing measles vaccines in 26 countries that have paused vaccination campaigns due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the report said, including many countries with ongoing outbreaks.

“Before there was a coronavirus crisis, the world was grappling with a measles crisis, and it has not gone away,” Henrietta Fore, UN Children’s Fund executive director, said in a statement. “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.”

Measles is a preventable disease, with prevention requiring 95 per cent of children to be vaccinated on time with two doses of measles-containing vaccines (MCV1 and MCV2). MCV1 coverage has been stagnant globally for more than a decade at between 84 and 85 per cent, while MCV2 coverage has been steadily increasing but is still only at 71 per cent.

Natasha Crowcroft, senior technical advisor on measles at the WHO, said measles vaccinations had saved more than 25.5 million lives globally since 2000, but the number of unprotected children was growing.

“The big issue is not actually large holes in coverage, it’s the stalling in coverage,” Ms Crowcroft told a news conference in Geneva. “It’s a bit like, you know, tinder for a forest fire, it reaches a point where an outbreak really takes off.”

As a result, last year saw “almost explosive outbreaks in areas that have had inadequate coverage over many years”, she added. “If you have coverage around about that 80 per cent level, then you get the sense that things are going okay, but they’re not really, and eventually you see these large outbreaks.”