Amid concerns about declining childhood vaccination rates, measles surges globally

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic drowned out every other public health issue, global measles cases reached a 23-year high, according a new World Health Organization (WHO) and CDC publication released on November 13. In 2019, there were a reported 869,770 measles cases leading to 207,500 deaths. The death rate was 50% higher than it was in 2016. Now, amid a worldwide coronavirus-related decline in childhood vaccinations, the agencies warn that global immunization partners must act quickly to reverse the trend. 

The WHO/CDC publication—Progress Toward Regional Measles Elimination—Worldwide, 2000–2019—aims to support the achievement of regional measles elimination goals, development of additional strategies to help countries strengthen routine immunization systems, identification and closing of immunity gaps, and improvement of case-based surveillance. 

Pharmacists can help prevent disease 
According to a statement by the Measles and Rubella Initiative (M&RI) published on the CDC website, 117 million in 13 countries are at risk of missing the measles vaccine as the COVID-19 pandemic goes on. M&RI comprises American Red Cross, CDC, UNICEF, United Nations Foundation, and WHO. 

“[This] news out of CDC regarding the global surge in measles cases illustrates why pharmacist involvement in pediatric immunizations during the pandemic is so important,” said APhA President Michael D. Hogue, PharmD, FAPhA, FNAP. 

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recently empowered pharmacists to provide all recommended childhood vaccination to patients ages 3 to 18, regardless of state laws to the contrary, during the public health emergency. Hogue said the nation needs to think beyond the emergency to avoid measles outbreaks in the United States.  

“Some states have unfortunately decided to restrict access to care by excluding pharmacists as Vaccines for Children (VFC) providers,” he said. The VFC program is a federally funded program that provides vaccines at no cost to children who might not otherwise be vaccinated because of inability to pay. 

“I’d call upon all state VFC programs to remove these unnecessary barriers to access to care so that we can prevent the global measles outbreak from becoming an issue here,” Hogue said. “And your pharmacist is even more eager to help prevent unnecessary disease outbreaks through prevention services like vaccinations.” 

Millions at risk 
But COVID-19 hovers over global efforts. 

“We are concerned that COVID-19 will contribute to an increase in the number of measles cases and deaths. Measles knows no borders, and it is imperative we work together to vaccinate more children and continue the fight against this preventable disease,” Gail McGovern, president and CEO of the American Red Cross, said in a WHO media release

Measles cases hit a historic low in 2016 only to increase precipitously by 2019. Authors of the WHO/CDC publications posit that the major reason for the growth is that children are not receiving, or are not receiving on time, both doses of the measle-containing vaccine, that are needed to fully protect them. Twenty-six nations paused their measles vaccination campaigns to concentrate on controlling COVID-19; only eight have resumed them.