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Measles incidence is down, but pandemic has slowed vaccination progress, researchers say

UPDATED: Thu., Nov. 25, 2021

Vials of measles, mumps and rubella vaccines sit in a cooler at the Rockland County Health Department in Pomona, N.Y., on March 27, 2019.  (Seth Wenig/Associated Press)
Vials of measles, mumps and rubella vaccines sit in a cooler at the Rockland County Health Department in Pomona, N.Y., on March 27, 2019. (Seth Wenig/Associated Press)
By Erin Blakemore Special to the Washington Post

In the past 20 years, measles vaccines have helped prevent an estimated 31.7 million infections. But despite progress toward eliminating the disease, the fight is far from over.

That’s the message of a new joint report from the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that gauges the world’s progress on the road to measles eradication from 2000 to 2020.

Measles cases fell worldwide between 2000 and 2016, with a brief rise between 2017 and 2019. But the number fell again in 2020, and the report says in the past two decades, incidence of the disease has fallen a whopping 94%.

But decrease isn’t eradication, and the pandemic has set back progress toward a world without measles. Routine immunizations decreased worldwide, fewer countries reported measles data and, the researchers write, there is an “immediate elevated risk” for both measles transmission and outbreaks.

As the world heads into the third year of the pandemic, experts are calling on countries to close the immunity gap. Measles is almost entirely preventable through vaccines, the CDC says.

“While reported measles cases dropped in 2020, evidence suggests we are likely seeing the calm before the storm as the risk of outbreaks continues to grow around the world,” said Kate O’Brien, director of WHO’s Department of Immunization, Vaccines and Biologicals, in a news release.

Since measles is so contagious, even a small number of cases can fuel outbreaks. The United States reached eradication – defined as no transmission for a year and a well-performing surveillance system – in 2000.

But outbreaks can and do happen, threatening the nation’s elimination status and jeopardizing public health. As of Nov. 10, the CDC had documented 47 measles cases in the United States, up from 13 confirmed cases in 2020.

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