By Jan Hoffman and Ruth Maclean – June 14, 2020
Many mass immunization efforts worldwide were halted this spring to prevent spread of the virus at crowded inoculation sites. The consequences have been alarming.
As poor countries around the world struggle to beat back the coronavirus, they are unintentionally contributing to fresh explosions of illness and death from other diseases — ones that are readily prevented by vaccines.
This spring, after the World Health Organization and UNICEF warned that the pandemic could spread swiftly when children gathered for shots, many countries suspended their inoculation programs. Even in countries that tried to keep them going, cargo flights with vaccine supplies were halted by the pandemic and health workers diverted to fight it.
Now, diphtheria is appearing in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal.
Cholera is in South Sudan, Cameroon, Mozambique, Yemen and Bangladesh.
A mutated strain of poliovirus has been reported in more than 30 countries.
And measles is flaring around the globe, including in Bangladesh, Brazil, Cambodia, Central African Republic, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Nepal, Nigeria and Uzbekistan.
Of 29 countries that have currently suspended measles campaigns because of the pandemic, 18 are reporting outbreaks. An additional 13 countries are considering postponement. According to the Measles and Rubella Initiative, 178 million people are at risk of missing measles shots in 2020.
The risk now is “an epidemic in a few months’ time that will kill more children than Covid,” said Chibuzo Okonta, the president of Doctors Without Borders in West and Central Africa.
As the pandemic lingers, the W.H.O. and other international public health groups are now urging countries to carefully resume vaccination while contending with the coronavirus.
“Immunization is one of the most powerful and fundamental disease prevention tools in the history of public health,” said Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director general of the W.H.O., in a statement. “Disruption to immunization programs from the Covid-19 pandemic threatens to unwind decades of progress against vaccine-preventable diseases like measles.”
But the obstacles to restarting are considerable. Vaccine supplies are still hard to come by. Health care workers are increasingly working full time on Covid-19, the infection caused by the coronavirus. And a new wave of vaccine hesitancy is keeping parents from clinics.
Many countries have yet to be hit with the full force of the pandemic itself, which will further weaken their capabilities to handle outbreaks of other diseases.
“We will have countries trying to recover from Covid and then facing measles. It would stretch their health systems further and have serious economic and humanitarian consequences,” said Dr. Robin Nandy, chief of immunization for UNICEF, which supplies vaccines to 100 countries, reaching 45 percent of children under 5.
The breakdown of vaccine delivery also has stark implications for protecting against the coronavirus itself.
At a global summit earlier this month, Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, a health partnership founded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, announced it had received pledges of $8.8 billion for basic vaccines to children in poor and middle-income countries, and was beginning a drive to deliver Covid-19 vaccines, once they’re available.
But as services collapse under the pandemic, “they are the same ones that will be needed to send out a Covid vaccine,” warned Dr. Katherine O’Brien, the W.H.O.’s director of immunization, vaccines and biologicals, during a recent webinar on immunization challenges.
Battling Measles in Congo
Three health care workers with coolers full of vaccines and a support team of town criers and note-takers recently stepped into a motorized wooden canoe to set off down the wide Tshopo River in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Although measles was breaking out in all of the country’s 26 provinces, the pandemic had shut down many inoculation programs weeks earlier.
The crew in the canoe needed to strike a balance between preventing the transmission of a new virus that is just starting to hit Africa hard and stopping an old, known killer. But when the long, narrow canoe pulled in at riverside communities, the crew’s biggest challenge turned out not to be the mechanics of vaccinating children while observing the pandemic’s new safety strictures. Instead, the crew found themselves working hard just to persuade villagers to allow their children to be immunized at all.
Many parents were convinced that the team was lying about the vaccine — that it was not for measles but, secretly, an experimental coronavirus vaccine, for which they would be unwitting guinea pigs.
In April, French-speaking Africa had been outraged by a French television interview in which two researchers said coronavirus vaccines should be tested in Africa — a remark that reignited memories of a long history of such abuses. And in Congo, the virologist in charge of the coronavirus response said that the country had indeed agreed to take part in clinical vaccine trials this summer. Later, he clarified that any vaccine would not be tested in Congo until it had been tested elsewhere. But pernicious rumors had already spread.
The team cajoled parents as best they could. Although vaccinators throughout Tshopo ultimately immunized 16,000 children, 2,000 others eluded them.
This had been the year that Congo, the second-largest country in Africa, was to launch a national immunization program. The urgency could not have been greater. The measles epidemic in the country, which started in 2018, has run on and on: Since this January alone, there have been more than 60,000 cases and 800 deaths. Now, Ebola has again flared, in addition to tuberculosis and cholera, which regularly strike the country.
Vaccines exist for all these diseases, although they are not always available. In late 2018, the country began an immunization initiative in nine provinces. It was a feat of coordination and initiative, and in 2019, the first full year, the percentage of fully immunized children jumped from 42 to 62 percent in Kinshasa, the capital.
This spring, as the program was being readied for its nationwide rollout, the coronavirus struck. Mass vaccination campaigns, which often mean summoning hundreds of children to sit close together in schoolyards and markets, seemed guaranteed to spread coronavirus. Even routine immunization, which typically occurs in clinics, became untenable in many areas.
The country’s health authorities decided to allow vaccinations to continue in areas with measles but no coronavirus cases. But the pandemic froze international flights that would bring medical supplies, and several provinces began running out of vaccines for polio, measles and tuberculosis.
When immunization supplies finally arrived in Kinshasa, they could not be moved around the country. Domestic flights had been suspended. Ground transport was not viable because of shoddy roads. Eventually, a United Nations peacekeeping mission ferried supplies on its planes.
Still, health workers, who had no masks, gloves or sanitizing gel, worried about getting infected; many stopped working. Others were diverted to be trained for Covid.
The cumulative impact has been particularly dire for polio eradication — around 85,000 Congolese children have not received that vaccine.
But the disease that public health officials are most concerned about erupting is measles.
More contagious than Covid
Measles virus spreads easily by aerosol — tiny particles or droplets suspended in the air — and is far more contagious than the coronavirus, according to experts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“If people walk into a room where a person with measles had been two hours ago and no one has been immunized, 100 percent of those people will get infected,” said Dr. Yvonne Maldonado, a pediatric infectious disease expert at Stanford University.
In poorer countries, the measles mortality rate for children under 5 ranges between 3 and 6 percent; conditions like malnutrition or an overcrowded refugee camp can increase the fatality rate. Children may succumb to complications such as pneumonia, encephalitis and severe diarrhea.
In 2018, the most recent year for which data worldwide has been compiled, there were nearly 10 million estimated cases of measles and 142,300 related deaths. And global immunization programs were more robust then.
Before the coronavirus pandemic in Ethiopia, 91 percent of children in the capital, Addis Ababa, received their first measles vaccination during routine visits, while 29 percent in rural regions got them. (To prevent an outbreak of a highly infectious disease like measles, the optimum coverage is 95 percent or higher, with two doses of vaccine.) When the pandemic struck, the country suspended its April measles campaign. But the government continues to report many new cases.
“Outbreak pathogens don’t recognize borders,” said Dr. O’Brien of the W.H.O. “Especially measles: Measles anywhere is measles everywhere.”
Wealthier countries’ immunization rates have also been plunging during the pandemic. Some American states report drops as steep as 70 percent below the same period a year earlier, for measles and other diseases.
Once people start traveling again, the risk of infection will surge. “It keeps me up at night,” said Dr. Stephen L. Cochi, a senior adviser at the global immunization division at the C.D.C. “These vaccine-preventable diseases are just one plane ride away.”
After the W.H.O. and its vaccine partners released the results of a survey last month showing that 80 million babies under a year old were at risk of missing routine immunizations, some countries, including Ethiopia, the Central African Republic and Nepal, began trying to restart their programs.
Uganda is now supplying health workers with motorbikes. In Brazil, some pharmacies are offering drive-by immunization services. In the Indian state of Bihar, a 50-year-old health care worker learned to ride a bicycle in three days so she could take vaccines to far-flung families. UNICEF chartered a flight to deliver vaccines to seven African countries.
Dr. Cochi of the C.D.C., which provides technical and program support to more than 40 countries, said that whether such campaigns can be conducted during the pandemic is an open question. “It will be fraught with limitations. We’re talking low-income countries where social distancing is not a reality, not possible,” he said, citing Brazilian favelas and migrant caravans.
He hopes that polio campaigns will resume swiftly, fearing that the pandemic could set back a global, decades-long effort to eradicate the disease.
Dr. Cochi is particularly worried about Pakistan and Afghanistan, where 61 cases of wild poliovirus Type 1 have been reported this year, and about Chad, Ghana, Ethiopia and Pakistan, where cases of Type 2 poliovirus, mutated from the oral vaccine, have appeared.
Thabani Maphosa, a managing director at Gavi, which partners with 73 countries to purchase vaccines, said that at least a half dozen of those countries say they cannot afford their usual share of vaccine costs because of the economic toll of the pandemic.
If the pandemic cleared within three months, Mr. Maphosa said, he believed the international community could catch up with immunizations over the next year and a half.
“But our scenarios are not telling us that will happen,” he added.
Jan Hoffman reported from New York, and Ruth Maclean from Dakar, Senegal.
Updated June 12, 2020
Frequently Asked Questions and Advice
- What’s the risk of catching coronavirus from a surface? Touching contaminated objects and then infecting ourselves with the germs is not typically how the virus spreads. But it can happen. A number of studies of flu, rhinovirus, coronavirus and other microbes have shown that respiratory illnesses, including the new coronavirus, can spread by touching contaminated surfaces, particularly in places like day care centers, offices and hospitals. But a long chain of events has to happen for the disease to spread that way. The best way to protect yourself from coronavirus — whether it’s surface transmission or close human contact — is still social distancing, washing your hands, not touching your face and wearing masks.
- Does asymptomatic transmission of Covid-19 happen? So far, the evidence seems to show it does. A widely cited paper published in April suggests that people are most infectious about two days before the onset of coronavirus symptoms and estimated that 44 percent of new infections were a result of transmission from people who were not yet showing symptoms. Recently, a top expert at the World Health Organization stated that transmission of the coronavirus by people who did not have symptoms was “very rare,” but she later walked back that statement.
- How does blood type influence coronavirus? A study by European scientists is the first to document a strong statistical link between genetic variations and Covid-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus. Having Type A blood was linked to a 50 percent increase in the likelihood that a patient would need to get oxygen or to go on a ventilator, according to the new study.
- How many people have lost their jobs due to coronavirus in the U.S.? The unemployment rate fell to 13.3 percent in May, the Labor Department said on June 5, an unexpected improvement in the nation’s job market as hiring rebounded faster than economists expected. Economists had forecast the unemployment rate to increase to as much as 20 percent, after it hit 14.7 percent in April, which was the highest since the government began keeping official statistics after World War II. But the unemployment rate dipped instead, with employers adding 2.5 million jobs, after more than 20 million jobs were lost in April.
- Will protests set off a second viral wave of coronavirus? Mass protests against police brutality that have brought thousands of people onto the streets in cities across America are raising the specter of new coronavirus outbreaks, prompting political leaders, physicians and public health experts to warn that the crowds could cause a surge in cases. While many political leaders affirmed the right of protesters to express themselves, they urged the demonstrators to wear face masks and maintain social distancing, both to protect themselves and to prevent further community spread of the virus. Some infectious disease experts were reassured by the fact that the protests were held outdoors, saying the open air settings could mitigate the risk of transmission.
- How do we start exercising again without hurting ourselves after months of lockdown? Exercise researchers and physicians have some blunt advice for those of us aiming to return to regular exercise now: Start slowly and then rev up your workouts, also slowly. American adults tended to be about 12 percent less active after the stay-at-home mandates began in March than they were in January. But there are steps you can take to ease your way back into regular exercise safely. First, “start at no more than 50 percent of the exercise you were doing before Covid,” says Dr. Monica Rho, the chief of musculoskeletal medicine at the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab in Chicago. Thread in some preparatory squats, too, she advises. “When you haven’t been exercising, you lose muscle mass.” Expect some muscle twinges after these preliminary, post-lockdown sessions, especially a day or two later. But sudden or increasing pain during exercise is a clarion call to stop and return home.
- My state is reopening. Is it safe to go out? States are reopening bit by bit. This means that more public spaces are available for use and more and more businesses are being allowed to open again. The federal government is largely leaving the decision up to states, and some state leaders are leaving the decision up to local authorities. Even if you aren’t being told to stay at home, it’s still a good idea to limit trips outside and your interaction with other people.
- What are the symptoms of coronavirus? Common symptoms include fever, a dry cough, fatigue and difficulty breathing or shortness of breath. Some of these symptoms overlap with those of the flu, making detection difficult, but runny noses and stuffy sinuses are less common. The C.D.C. has also added chills, muscle pain, sore throat, headache and a new loss of the sense of taste or smell as symptoms to look out for. Most people fall ill five to seven days after exposure, but symptoms may appear in as few as two days or as many as 14 days.
- How can I protect myself while flying? If air travel is unavoidable, there are some steps you can take to protect yourself. Most important: Wash your hands often, and stop touching your face. If possible, choose a window seat. A study from Emory University found that during flu season, the safest place to sit on a plane is by a window, as people sitting in window seats had less contact with potentially sick people. Disinfect hard surfaces. When you get to your seat and your hands are clean, use disinfecting wipes to clean the hard surfaces at your seat like the head and arm rest, the seatbelt buckle, the remote, screen, seat back pocket and the tray table. If the seat is hard and nonporous or leather or pleather, you can wipe that down, too. (Using wipes on upholstered seats could lead to a wet seat and spreading of germs rather than killing them.)
- How do I take my temperature? Taking one’s temperature to look for signs of fever is not as easy as it sounds, as “normal” temperature numbers can vary, but generally, keep an eye out for a temperature of 100.5 degrees Fahrenheit or higher. If you don’t have a thermometer (they can be pricey these days), there are other ways to figure out if you have a fever, or are at risk of Covid-19 complications.
- Should I wear a mask? The C.D.C. has recommended that all Americans wear cloth masks if they go out in public. This is a shift in federal guidance reflecting new concerns that the coronavirus is being spread by infected people who have no symptoms. Until now, the C.D.C., like the W.H.O., has advised that ordinary people don’t need to wear masks unless they are sick and coughing. Part of the reason was to preserve medical-grade masks for health care workers who desperately need them at a time when they are in continuously short supply. Masks don’t replace hand washing and social distancing.
- What should I do if I feel sick? If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.
- How do I get tested? If you’re sick and you think you’ve been exposed to the new coronavirus, the C.D.C. recommends that you call your healthcare provider and explain your symptoms and fears. They will decide if you need to be tested. Keep in mind that there’s a chance — because of a lack of testing kits or because you’re asymptomatic, for instance — you won’t be able to get tested.