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How the Ebola Epidemic Will Lead to Measles Outbreaks Too

The Ebola epidemic will likely lead to outbreaks of other diseases, but countries could prevent that with vaccination campaigns.
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The measles virus under the microscope. (Photo: sanofi-pasteur/Flickr)

The measles virus under the microscope. (Photo: sanofi-pasteur/Flickr)

Where disaster strikes, measles often follows.

Big, disruptive events ranging from earthquakes to military coups all make it harder for folks to keep up with basics such as immunizations for their babies. That means that several months after a disaster, there's often an outbreak of preventable disease—a sad second punch for areas already struggling to recover from the first.

In the past, doctors have documented measles outbreaks in the wake of Syria's recent civil war, the 1991 coup in Haiti, and a volcanic eruption in the Philippines. Now, a team of researchers based in the United States and the United Kingdom is warning the same could happen in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, the West African countries that are still dealing with Ebola epidemics.

"Measles is one of the first ones in the door when anything happens."

The research team estimated that in the next 18 months, tens of thousands of people in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone will likely get measles. And had there never been an Ebola epidemic, they probably wouldn't have. In the "least pessimistic scenario" the team studied, 500 to 4,000 people would die who wouldn’t have otherwise, Justin Lessler, an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins University and the study's senior scientist, said during a conference call for journalists that Pacific Standard attended.

One solution is getting local health ministries to start vaccination campaigns, perhaps sending workers to vulnerable regions to give out measles shots. That's challenging, however. "These campaigns are extremely logistically complex," Lessler said. "They take a while to organize and everybody has rightly been focused on controlling Ebola recently." Still, he said, "Our work shows that a campaign would have a huge benefit."

Indeed, many preventable diseases are expected to rise in the wake of these countries' Ebola epidemics, which have shut down some clinics and made people afraid to go to the ones that remain open. In addition to the measles shot, a supplementary campaign could provide other vaccines kids might have missed during this time, such as the polio vaccine, and hand out antibiotics and mosquito nets to stave off malaria.

In this study, published today in the journal Science, Lessler and his team focused on measles because it's especially common after disasters. It's incredibly contagious, and kids are less likely to be vaccinated against it. Even in tough times, kids are more likely to get immunizations they're scheduled to receive in their first weeks of life, when their parents are more likely to see a doctor frequently. But babies aren't supposed to receive a measles vaccine until around nine months.

"It's one of the first diseases for which we lose our herd protection in an outbreak," Lessler said. "Measles is one of the first ones in the door when anything happens."

Quick Studies is an award-winning series that sheds light on new research and discoveries that change the way we look at the world.