A “staggering” number of children could be left vulnerable to measles as national immunisation campaigns are shut down to prevent the spread of coronavirus, global health experts have warned.

Roughly 117 million children across the globe are at risk of missing out on vaccines in the coming months, according to the the Measles & Rubella Initiative – a global consortium that includes Unicef, the World Health Organisation, the American Red Cross and the US Centre for Disease Control. 

This could lead to a global resurgence of the deadly and highly contagious childhood disease, the initiative has warned, by creating “immunity gaps that the measles virus will exploit.”

In much of the world routine immunisations are not delivered via appointments at a GP surgery or health clinic, but during mass vaccination campaigns in public settings – for instance schools, churches and marketplaces – which attract large gatherings.

In an effort to limit the continued spread of Covid-19, various UN bodies – including Unicef and the WHO – have recommended that governments postpone such campaigns where there is “no active outbreak of a vaccine-preventable disease”. 

“We are recommending that we focus on Covid and adapt our delivery service, we do not want to do more harm than good,” Dr Robin Nandy, global chief of immunisation at Unicef, told The Telegraph. “It would be inappropriate for us to recommend a campaign when the government is ordering a shut down.”

Already this advice has been heeded in 24 countries, the M&RI said today, while 13 other nations with vaccination campaigns scheduled for later this year are expected to delay programmes. 

While the M&RI consortium supported the advice, it warned that routine immunisation should continue where possible and plans must be put in place to ramp up coverage once the coronavirus threat subsides. 

“Together, more than 117 million children in 37 countries, many of whom live in regions with ongoing measles outbreaks, could be impacted by the suspension of scheduled immunisation activities,” the consortium said in a statement. 

“This staggering number does not include the number of infants that may not be vaccinated because of the effect of Covid-19 on routine immunization services.

“Urgent efforts must be taken now at local, national, regional and global levels to prepare to close the immunity gaps that the measles virus will exploit,” M&RI added. 

Already, about 20 million children a year miss out on vital vaccinations according to Unicef and the WHO. A report last year showed that global coverage for childhood vaccines has stagnated at roughly 86 per cent since 2010, well below the 95 per cent required to avert outbreaks.

And even before the Covid-19 pandemic measles infections were already on the rise. In 2018, the latest year where full data is available, there were 9.7 million cases and 142,300 deaths – the vast majority of which were in children under the age of five.

These figures represented a dramatic increase on the 2017 total, when there were 124,000 deaths and 7.5 million cases. But experts estimate that the figures for 2019 will climb even higher, after the widespread outbreaks in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where 6,000 children died, and Samoa. 

However experts believe that the threat of widespread measles outbreaks will be most substantial once ‘social distancing’ measures to halt the coronavirus pandemic are reversed. 

“The greatest risk is when these restrictions are lifted and life starts to go on as usual,” said Dr Nandy. “And so we are saying that countries need to be mindful of this and start planning how to catch up on missed vaccine doses as soon as possible after disruption.”

Among the countries that have postponed their vaccination programs amid the Covid-19 pandemic are Bolivia, Chad, Chile, Colombia, Djibouti, the Dominican Republic, Ethiopia, Honduras, Lebanon, Nepal, Paraguay, Somalia, South Sudan and Uzbekistan.

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