The World Health Organization and the U.S. public health agency say there is now an “imminent threat” of measles transmission in every region of the world.
In a joint report, the health organizations said the number of measles vaccines has declined during the COVID pandemic, as has surveillance for the disease.
Measles is one of the most contagious human viruses but is almost entirely preventable through vaccination, although it requires 95% vaccine coverage to prevent outbreaks.
Nearly 40 million children missed out on vaccinations last year due to barriers created by the pandemic, a record high, according to reports from the World Health Organization and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
This makes millions of children vulnerable to the disease.
“We are at a crossroads,” said Patrick O’Connor, WHO’s measles chief.
“Trying to mitigate that is going to be a very challenging 12-24 months.”
He said that while there had not been a significant increase in cases compared to previous years, now was the time to act.
Mr O’Connor said lingering social distancing measures and the cyclical nature of measles likely explained why there had been no spike in cases.
However, this could change quickly, as it is a highly contagious disease.
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Worldwide, about 9 million people were infected with measles and 128,000 died last year, officials said.
In February, British health officials warned that vaccination rates had dropped fell to its lowest level in a decade.
Measles is usually spread by direct contact and through coughing and sneezing.
Unvaccinated young children are at the highest risk for measles and its complications.
It can cause pneumonia, encephalitis (inflammation of the brain), and compromise the immune system, making children more susceptible to other infections.
Symptoms from measles include fever, muscle pain, and a rash on the face and upper neck, and can sometimes be fatal.
More than 95% of deaths occur in developing countries, mainly in Africa and Asia.
There is no specific treatment for measles, but two doses of the vaccine are about 97 percent effective in preventing severe illness and death.