West Africa's suffering is unlikely to be over, even as Ebola winds down after killing over 10,000 people there. A new study out Thursday warns that the region is extremely vulnerable to a measles epidemic that could be equally deadly.
Measles is one of the most infectious diseases on Earth, and tends to follow disasters, said Justin Lessler of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, in Baltimore, a co-author of the study reported in the journal Science.
Ebola has disrupted vaccination efforts in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea, leaving many children under age five unprotected against measles. Outbreaks of measles happen annually in the region and will likely strike over the next few months, Lessler said. And when this happens, the Ebola-ravaged nations will be unprepared.
Why It Matters
Compounding the tragedy, a major outbreak could set back the tremendous progress the region had made in combating measles in recent years. Between 1994 and 2003, about 100,000 cases of measles were reported in the three West African nations, Lessler said; there were just 7,000 from 2004 to 2013. “They’ve done an excellent job of controlling the virus,” he said.
The Big Picture
Vaccination rates have fallen across the region because there hasn’t been a major campaign in several years, said Lessler. As many as 400,000 children could become infected in the region, the study predicts, with anywhere from 2,000 to 16,000 deaths.
“For every month no campaign is conducted to fill the existing holes in immunity, the risk of outbreak occurring increases,” he said at a Wednesday news conference.
Liberia, which has no current Ebola cases, is planning to start a vaccination campaign by May, said Daniel Lucey of Georgetown University Medical Center, in Washington, D.C., who is in Liberia and met with health ministry officials earlier today. The other countries, which are still fighting Ebola, are likely to be further behind.
Lucey said he hopes the research will help galvanize the national and international communities to help West Africa emerge from the Ebola disaster with a viable health system. Building a new system is the only way to prevent another health catastrophe—whether measles, Ebola, or something else—from devastating the region, he said.