Photo credit: Karina Zambra/PAHO
Even before the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic upended all of our lives, measles cases surged to a 23-year high around the world. Now, because of global lockdowns or restricted access to health care services, immunization programs have been slowed or paused completely, putting millions of children at risk of disease and death because of missed vaccines.
With COVID-19 limitations and limited health infrastructure, countries in the Americas have been hit particularly hard with outbreaks of one of the most contagious, vaccine-preventable diseases. In communities outside Brasilia, the capital of Brazil, measles outbreaks have had a severe negative impact.
In October 2020, the Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO), with generous support of Lions Clubs International Foundation (LCIF), sent a team to the area to establish an emergency mass vaccination campaign to restart immunization programs and stem the tide of growing measles cases. During the campaign, which ran October 5 through October 29, more than 11.7 million people were vaccinated with the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine. While this is only 13 percent of the targeted population, it is still a significant start to closing gaps in vaccine coverage in the area.
In addition to financial support from LCIF, Brazilian Lions participated in social media campaigns to raise awareness and turnout during the campaign. Lions typically participate in a wide variety of social mobilization and advocacy activities during vaccination campaigns, but there were limited opportunities for engagement due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Fathers like Edicarlos, who brought his daughter Maria to be vaccinated during the campaign, say it is vital to ensure children get vaccinated on time, every time. But the pandemic limited their ability to do so.
“We didn’t come to vaccinate because we had been practicing physical distancing,” said Edicarlos. The emergency campaign allowed Maria to get back on her immunization schedule.
Edicarlos and daughter Maria show off her vaccination record during an emergency immunization campaign in Brasilia, Brazil. Photo credit: Karina Zambra/PAHO
Parents Luis Felipe and Kelen Raiane shared just how difficult it has been dealing with the pandemic while also caring for their daughter, Helena. They both had to continue working throughout lockdowns to pay their rent. To protect Helena, they sent her to live with Kelen Raiane’s mother.
“I think separation was the hardest part,” said Kelen Raiane. “We had to do this… to take her to a place where she would be protected, more isolated, and we could continue working.” But this separation meant Helena was not able to get her vaccines on schedule.
Despite these challenges, Luis Felipe and Kelen Raiane knew they needed to get their daughter vaccinated during PAHO’s emergency campaign. “We get heartbroken because they suffer and cry a lot, but deep down we know it’s for their own good,” they said. “It’s very important [that all children receive their vaccines] to prevent other diseases.”
A nurse examines a vaccination record during the emergency campaign. Photo credit: Karina Zambra/PAHO
Emergency vaccination campaigns like this are hugely important, as they catch children up on life-saving immunizations they may be missing due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Public health officials are worried that while current data show measles cases and measles-related deaths are down worldwide compared to this time last year, this is because surveillance systems are unable to count people who lack access to public health systems.
Measles is often seen as the proverbial “canary in the coalmine,” quickly indicating where large unimmunized populations are because the disease is highly contagious and spreads like wildfire. It will be imperative for public health officials to remain hypervigilant in administering emergency campaigns wherever and whenever they can. Financial support from organizations like LCIF is what makes these campaigns possible.
But the road ahead is steep—significant funding gaps must be filled to address global measles outbreaks. UNICEF and the World Health Organization recently announced an emergency call to action to help support global polio and measles outbreak response because of COVID-19. An estimated US$255 million is urgently needed to help vaccines reach populations missing immunizations this year because of the pandemic.
Despite the challenges, ensuring vaccinations reach everyone, everywhere is imperative. Ultimately, emergency immunization campaigns like the LCIF-supported activities in Brazil will make the difference in stopping the next looming global health crisis and save the lives of vulnerable children around the world. We must all act together now to stop measles—a disease easily prevented with safe and affordable tools we have already—and once again take hold as we continue decades of progress.