Stopping measles must include immunization efforts here and around the globe: Martha Rebour

WASHINGTON, DC — The report of the measles outbreak in Ohio, with at least 82 children impacted thus far, left me feeling profoundly sad, particularly for those suffering from the disease and for family members with little ones in the state.

However, I’m not at all surprised. Measles anywhere is a threat everywhere, especially when people are not vaccinated. Measles is one of the most contagious diseases, and the pandemic showed us how easily infectious diseases cross borders. A person with measles has up to a 90% chance of infecting people around them who are not immune or vaccinated against the disease, per the US> Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

We have safe and effective vaccines, and immunizing children with them is paramount. Since its integration into routine immunization campaigns, the measles vaccine alone has saved an estimated more than 23 million lives since 2000, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates. And it is more than 97% effective at preventing infection after the recommended two doses (and about 93% effective after the first dose), according to the CDC.

Unfortunately, we are seeing firsthand what happens when children are not vaccinated.

The Ohio children who have contracted measles are not alone in their susceptibility to the disease. The pandemic weakened health systems, causing children both here and around the world to miss routine immunizations. In fact, as a result of the disruption, more than 40 million children around the world – a record-high number – missed measles vaccines in 2021 and are at risk of contracting it, according to WHO.

UNICEF warned this summer that this largest sustained decline in childhood vaccination for approximately 30 years made more outbreaks inevitable. In a joint report, the CDC and the World Health Organization have warned that measles poses an “imminent threat” around the world and called for urgent global action, noting “[t]the situation is grave.”

We must do what we can to get routine immunizations back on track and protect everyone we can from this insidious disease, both here at home and abroad. Globally, according to WHO, measles caused more than 128,000 deaths last year, primarily among children under the age of 5. Losing that many children to a vaccine-preventable disease is senseless, and that staggering number hammers home why we must prioritize childhood immunization now .

The measles vaccine is safe and effective, and we must ensure that all children, whether they live in Cleveland, Caracas, Kampala, or anywhere else in the world, are protected. Not only is it the right thing to do, it also makes economic sense. A single measles outbreak in Washington state in 2019 that infected 72 people cost an estimated $3.4 million, ABC News reported last year, citing an analysis published by the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Not only are health department budgets spent, so are health care workers. Health systems and those who make them function cannot endure another large-scale outbreak.

As state and local health authorities work with the CDC to contain this outbreak, there are ways we can help prevent future outbreaks, in addition to encouraging getting and vaccinations.

Martha Rebour is executive director of Shot@Life, a campaign for the United Nations Foundation. (Photo by Chantale Wong)

Millions around the world find it much more difficult to obtain vaccines than Ohioans do, which has created a global immunity gap. We must rally support for UNICEF, the World Health Organization, the Measles & Rubella Initiative and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, organizations that are capable of addressing the immunity gap but in need of the resources to do so. We should also urge our federal lawmakers to prioritize worldwide vaccination efforts to help keep us safe here at home.

Sen. Sherrod Brown’s support when meeting with Ohioans who are vaccine advocates from Shot@Life on the issue over the years is much appreciated and will hopefully continue. Please let him and Sen. JD Vance know that you support global immunization efforts and hope they do, too.

Martha Rebour is the executive director of Shot@Life, a campaign of the United Nations Foundation devoted to increasing access to vaccines around the world.

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