There is a highly infectious virus spreading around the world and it is targeting the most vulnerable among us. It is among the most contagious of human diseases, spreading through the air unseen. No, it isn’t the novel coronavirus, COVID-19. It’s measles.
Remember measles? Outbreaks in recent years have brought the disease, which once was declared eliminated in the United States, back into the news and public awareness, but measles never has really gone away. Every year there are millions of cases worldwide – in 2018 alone there were nearly 10 million estimated cases and 142,300 deaths, according to the World Health Organization. The good news is that measles vaccination is highly effective, at about 97% after the recommended two doses. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “because of vaccination, more than 21 million lives have been saved and measles deaths have been reduced by 80% since 2000.” This is a tremendous public health success and a cause for celebration. But our work is not done. The recent increases in vaccine hesitancy and refusal in many countries has contributed to the resurgence of measles worldwide.
Influenza still is in full swing with the CDC reporting high activity in 40 states for the week ending March 14th. Seasonal influenza, according to currently available data, has a lower fatality rate than COVID-19, but that doesn’t mean it is harmless. Thus far in the 2019-2020 flu season, there have been at least 23,000 deaths because of influenza in the United States alone, 149 of which were among pediatric patients.
Like many pediatricians, I have seen firsthand the impact of vaccine-preventable illnesses like influenza, pertussis, and varicella. I have personally cared for an infant with pertussis who had to be intubated and on a ventilator for nearly a week. I have told the family of a child with cancer that they would have to be admitted to the hospital yet again for intravenous antiviral medication because that little rash turned out to be varicella. I have performed CPR on a previously healthy teenager with the flu whose heart was failing despite maximum ventilator support. All these illnesses might have been prevented had these patients or those around them been appropriately vaccinated.
Right now, the United States and governments around the world are taking unprecedented public health measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19, directing the public to stay home, avoid unnecessary contact with other people, practice good hand-washing and infection-control techniques. In order to promote social distancing, many primary care clinics are canceling nonurgent appointments or converting them to virtual visits, including some visits for routine vaccinations for older children, teens, and adults. This is a responsible choice to keep potentially asymptomatic people from spreading COVID-19, but once restrictions begin to lift, we all will need to act to help our patients catch up on these missing vaccinations.
This pandemic has made it more apparent than ever that we all rely upon each other to stay healthy. While this pandemic has disrupted nearly every aspect of daily life, we can’t let it disrupt one of the great successes in health care today: the prevention of serious illnesses. As soon as it is safe to do so, we must help and encourage patients to catch up on missing vaccinations. It’s rare that preventative public health measures and vaccine developments are in the nightly news, so we should use this increased public awareness to ensure patients are well educated and protected from every disease. As part of this, we must continue our efforts to share accurate information on the safety and efficacy of routine vaccination. And when there is a vaccine for COVID-19? Let’s make sure everyone gets that too.
Dr. Leighton is a pediatrician in the ED at Children’s National Hospital and currently is completing her MPH in health policy at George Washington University, both in Washington. She had no relevant financial disclosures.*
* This article was updated 3/23/2020.