The World Health Organisation (WHO) says about 16.6 million children in Africa missed planned supplemental measles vaccine doses between January 2020 and April 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The WHO Regional Director for Africa, Matshidiso Moeti, revealed this during a virtual press conference on Thursday.
Measles is highly contagious, requiring at least 95 per cent immunisation coverage in the population to prevent outbreaks. But the first dose of the vaccine has stagnated at around 69 per cent in the WHO African Region since 2013.
Only seven countries in the region achieved 95 per cent vaccine coverage in 2019.
The low measles coverage reflects a wider stagnation in routine immunisation in Africa that, in some countries, has been exacerbated by the pandemic and related restrictions.
Some diseases, including tetanus, diphtheria, and yellow fever, require 90 per cent coverage in the population, yet rates in Africa remained stuck at around 70 to 75 per cent over the last decade.
Around nine million children in the African region miss life-saving vaccines each year. One in five children remains unprotected from vaccine-preventable diseases, which claim the lives of over 500,000 children under five years in Africa every year.
Ms Moeti said the outbreaks were largely due to low routine immunisation coverage caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.She explained that eight African countries reported major measles outbreaks that affected tens of thousands during the period. According to her, 15 countries delayed measles immunisation drives in 2020 as they dealt with the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The COVID-19 pandemic, which has led to over three million deaths globally, left gaps in routine immunisation coverage in the Africa region.
“Recent outbreaks of measles, but also yellow fever, cholera, and meningitis, all point to worrying gaps in immunisation coverage and surveillance in Africa,” Ms Moeti added.