As the Ebola epidemic hit West Africa, medical personnel, hospitals and volunteers found themselves pulled in one direction and one direction only: toward the battle against Ebola. With so much medical attention placed on the potentially deadly virus, many other areas of public health fell to the wayside, and now Ebola survivors are facing new dangers.
One such issue is the resurgence of measles, a very real threat since vaccination numbers have severely declined after the Ebola outbreak started. Millions of children in the region are now in danger of measles, and according to a research team from University of Southampton, a measles outbreak at this point in time could claim twice as many lives as Ebola.
“The Ebola epidemic is one of the worst public health crisis in recent memory causing tens of thousands of people to become critically ill and thousands more to die, stated Dr. Andy Tatem, a geographer at the University of Southampton, in a press release. “It has also caused severe disruption to health care services in the affected countries, including childhood vaccination programmes – thus creating a second public health risk. The disruption in recent months has led to a pool of unvaccinated children building up across West Africa – leaving them susceptible to measles and opening the door to a large increase in cases.”
Measles is a highly contagious viral disease primarily affecting children. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), vaccination is the only way to prevent measles, and though the vaccine is widely available and cost-effective, there are still almost 150,000 deaths from measles annually.
The increase in measles cases is concerning given how contagious the virus is. The team from Southampton estimates immunization has fallen by 75 percent in West Africa since the Ebola outbreak. Should the number of measles cases continue to grow, some 227,000 people will be affected, with death rates as high as 16,000. There is no cure for measles; the virus can only be treated as symptoms present. Most measles deaths occur in children under the age of 5 and are the result of brain inflammation, severe dehydration and other complications.
“Our study shows it is crucial to have an aggressive regional vaccination programme ready to run, as soon as the threat of Ebola begins to recede, to help counter the steep downturn in immunisation rates,” said Tatem. “Understanding how measles is likely to spread geographically and where best to concentrate interventions will be vital to an effective response.”
Measles vaccines aren’t the only ones to be affected by the Ebola epidemic. Experts indicate vaccination rates are also down for meningitis, tuberculosis and polio. Similarly, intervention efforts against HIV/AIDS and malaria have been impacted, decreasing the number of people able to access aid for these illnesses.