This centuries-old disease is now an imminent global threat

We asked The Telegraph experts to name 2023 ‘one to watch’. Here’s who and what we’ll be talking about next year. Scroll down to browse the entire series.

Next year, the thing to watch in global health is measles — not just the progression of the virus itself, but the disease as a sign of how bad the lockdowns and other fallout from the Covid pandemic have set things back.

Recent outbreaks have occurred in countries as diverse as Ethiopia, India, Tajikistan, and Poland. Last year, 22 countries experienced large outbreaks, with an estimated nine million cases and 128,000 deaths worldwide. Countless children will suffer terrible neurological damage as a result, which will ruin their lives permanently. Measles, of course, is entirely preventable. But vaccination coverage has been steadily declining around the world since the beginning of the Covid pandemic due to disruptions in healthcare, which has left us in our current situation.

It’s not the only childhood vaccine that millions have missed, but because of the speed with which measles spreads, it will be the first we notice next year. In affected areas, there will be a shortage of health care and outbreaks of other preventable diseases are likely to follow. “The irony of the pandemic is that while vaccines against Covid were developed in record time and deployed in the largest vaccination campaign in history, routine immunization programs were severely disrupted, and millions of children missed out on life-saving vaccines,” WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said.

It would be a big mistake to think that these are just problems facing developing countries. The UK lost its measles-free status in 2018 after vaccine rates fell and cases rose. The latest data indicates that vaccine coverage for the second dose declined further during the pandemic, to just 85.5 percent in five years, with 43 cases recorded in the year to September 2022. Only Tajikistan and Turkey recorded more in the WHO European region.

In November, the organization warned that there was now an imminent threat of measles spreading to different regions around the world, as the COVID-19 virus had led to a steady decline in vaccination coverage and poor disease surveillance. “The sharp decline in measles vaccination rates should sound alarm bells,” said Elizabeth Cousins, president and CEO of the United Nations Foundation. ‘There is no time to waste.’ We must act urgently to ensure life-saving vaccines reach the last child.

“For three years, we have been sounding the alarm about declining vaccination rates and the growing risks to children’s health globally…the time has come for decisive action,” added Ephrem Tekle Limango, UNICEF Chief of Immunization. Countries that fully vaccinate 95 percent or more of their population create herd immunity against measles and quickly become measles-free. But the world is well below that threshold right now, and so is the UK. It’s a sign of how much Covid has damaged our health services – and how much we need to do in 2023 to make up for lost ground.

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