Ever since the first cases of COVID-19 were identified, the entire world has been fixated on the highly infectious and potentially deadly virus. As of June 15, over 7.69 million people have tested positive for coronavirus and an estimated 428,000 have lost their lives as a result. However, as the world focuses its efforts on preventing the spread of COVID-19, other seemingly less threatening illnesses are being put on the back burner. And, according to some experts, doing so could lead to a new kind of epidemic deadlier than coronavirus.
The New York Times reports that poor countries around the world are unintentionally exposing themselves to other diseases, all of which can be prevented by vaccines. Why? This spring, many countries postponed their inoculation programs after the World Health Organization and UNICEF warned that COVID-19 could spread easily when children gathered for vaccinations. In other countries, the supply chain was impacted by the pandemic, making it difficult for them to receive vaccines at all.
As a result, illnesses are popping up around the world. Diphtheria in Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Nepal, Cholera is in South Sudan, Cameroon, Mozambique, Yemen, and Bangladesh, and a mutated strain of poliovirus in more than 30 countries.
But the virus that experts are most concerned about is measles—a virus spread via tiny particles or droplets suspended in the air that is much more contagious than COVID-19, per the CDC—as cases are exploding in several countries, including Bangladesh, Brazil, Cambodia, Central African Republic, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Nepal, Nigeria, and Uzbekistan. In fact, according to the NYT, 18 out of the 29 countries forced to suspend measles vaccinations are experiencing outbreaks. Even scarier, is that per the Measles and Rubella Initiative, 178 million people are at risk of missing measles shots in 2020.
Just how contagious is the measles? “If people walk into a room where a person with measles had been two hours ago and no one has been immunized, 100 percent of those people will get infected,” Dr. Yvonne Maldonado, a pediatric infectious disease expert at Stanford University, explained to the paper.
Immunization is Key
Of course, measles is 100 percent preventable with a vaccine.
“Immunization is one of the most powerful and fundamental disease prevention tools in the history of public health,” said Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the W.H.O., in a statement. “Disruption to immunization programs from the COVID-19 pandemic threatens to unwind decades of progress against vaccine-preventable diseases like measles.”
Chibuzo Okonta, the president of Doctors Without Borders in West and Central Africa, described the risk as “an epidemic in a few months’ time that will kill more children than COVID-19.”
While the WHO is recommending countries to resume vaccination in a safe manner, it isn’t as easy as it sounds. There are a variety of factors still coming between unvaccinated individuals and the immunizations that could save their lives. These include the lingering nature of the pandemic, the fact that vaccine supplies aren’t readily available, healthcare workers still focusing their efforts on COVID-19, and parents being hesitant to bring their children into group settings for vaccinations. Then, there is also the reality that the virus still hasn’t peaked in some parts of the world. Dr. Stephen L. Cochi, a senior adviser at the global immunization division at the CDC, also points out that when people resume traveling again, “vaccine-preventable diseases are just one plane ride away.”
And, keep in mind that a measles epidemic could impact the United States. Take into account the 2018-2019 measles outbreak in New York City—the largest in the United States in over three decades—primarily due to low vaccination rates within certain communities. A new study points out that COVID-19 may be getting in the way of vaccinations domestically as well, and the result could be an uptick in cases. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio recently revealed MMR vaccination rates in New York City have dropped by 63 percent for all children and 91 percent among those over age 2 in recent weeks — increasing the potential for a future outbreak of measles and other childhood infections.
“At the moment, chances of an immediate measles outbreak in the City remain low thanks to the recent vaccination campaigns and current social distancing practice. But as the number of unvaccinated children increases and contact resumes, there would be a much greater risk of disease spread,” says Wan Yang, Ph.D., assistant professor of epidemiology at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, and author of the study. “Social distancing is needed to protect the population from COVID-19 while researchers work to develop a vaccine. Thankfully, for many other life-threatening infections such as measles, mumps, and rubella, we already have vaccinations to protect children from those diseases. It’s crucial that parents work with their doctors to make sure their children are vaccinated timely.”
So do so, and to stay safe in your city, don’t miss these Things You Should Never Do During the Coronavirus Pandemic.