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In November 2021, the World Health Organization drew attention to the largest increase in unvaccinated children in 20 years and the critical gaps in disease surveillance, increasing the risk of measles outbreaks, putting lives at risk. Nearly 40 million children were projected to be dangerously susceptible to the growing measles threat.
Measles is one of the world’s most contagious human viruses, but is almost entirely preventable through vaccination. It is reported that the COVID-19 pandemic has caused significant disruptions to immunization services and changes in health-seeking behaviours in many parts of the world. Large numbers of unvaccinated children and diagnostics diverted to support COVID-19 responses were mentioned as factors that increased the likelihood of measles-related deaths and serious complications in children. The situation is much more grave in the socioeconomically weaker regions of the world. In recent times, several communities have experienced severe morbidity and even deaths due to measles.
The measles virus is known to harm the eye and affect it in different ways. Measles infections can harm the front or back of the eye, possibly causing vision loss or blindness. These include conditions such as conjunctivitis, keratitis, corneal scarring and sometimes, even retinopathy, optic neuritis and blindness.
Health systems are impacted significantly by the backlog in services for cataract and severe visual impairment due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Certain governments have launched strategies to address this backlog. Vision impairment due to measles could further burden these challenged systems.
Recent sudden spurts of COVID-19 in certain countries have raised discussions on the possibilities of new SARS-CoV-2 variants. While the measures used to mitigate COVID-19, i.e. masking, handwashing, distancing, also reduce the spread of the measles virus, countries and global health partners must prioritize finding and vaccinating children against measles to reduce the risk of explosive outbreaks and preventable deaths from this disease. Getting immunization programmes back on track is absolutely critical.
Behind every statistic is a child at risk of a disease that could be prevented. Strategies would include surveillance for measles and associated vision impairment, linkages for intervention, therapy, convergence between primary health and eye care structures and awareness.