The World Health Organization warns a sharp rise in measles cases in Afghanistan is threatening the lives and well-being of millions of malnourished children.
More than 35,300 suspected cases of measles and 156 deaths have been reported in Afghanistan from January 2021 through January of this year. What is setting off alarm bells ringing is the sharp, rapid rise in cases last month.
The World Health Organization reports a 40% increase in the number of measles cases in the last week of January. Although the number of deaths is relatively low, the WHO warns many children are likely to die from the disease in the coming weeks.
WHO spokesman Christian Lindmeier says measles-related deaths are not always reported in Afghanistan, so the toll is likely to be much higher than the figures suggest.
“The rise in measles cases is especially concerning because of the extremely high levels of malnutrition in Afghanistan," Lindmeier said. "Malnutrition weakens immunity, making people more vulnerable to illness and death from diseases like measles—especially children. In addition, measles infections can cause immune system suppression and immunologic amnesia, which increases susceptibility to all pathogens.”
The World Food Program says Afghanistan is facing the worst food crisis on record. It says 1 in 3 people are going hungry and some 2 million children are malnourished. The WFP warns 14 million children are expected to face potentially life-threatening levels of hunger, noting that malnutrition rates already are soaring.
Measles is an extremely contagious viral disease. Lindmeier says unvaccinated young children are at highest risk of getting sick and dying from it.
In December, he says, an immunization campaign was carried out in response to a measles outbreak. He says the campaign reached 1.5 million children in some of the most-affected provinces.
“Now, WHO is helping to plan for a larger measles outbreak response immunization campaign, which will start in May, or earlier if possible, aiming to reach more than 3 million children nationwide," Lindmeier said. "Support from WHO includes helping with the process needed to secure additional vaccines and devices, as well as the operational funds and the support for planning the campaign.”
The WHO says strengthening routine immunization is the best way to protect people, especially children, from getting measles. The agency urges governments to make sure at least 95 percent of their populations receive two doses of measles-containing vaccine.