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Contagious Diseases on the Rise Globally

Recent data shows that several once-managed viruses have returned at rates concerning to many scientists. A recent Bloomberg article titled “Yes, Everyone Really is Sick a Lot More Often After Covid” explores the potential reasons why at least 13 communicable diseases are on the rise across the globe, including reduced vaccination rates.

New analysis conducted by Airfinity and Bloomberg News found that over 40 countries or territories reported at least one infectious disease resurgence that is tenfold or more over the pre-COVID pandemic baseline. The increased rate of infectious diseases can be attributed to three factors: falling vaccination rates, decline in population immunity during the pandemic years, and climate change which enables the spread of diseases like dengue and cholera. While these factors may largely account for the resurgence of illness, it is important to note that greater surveillance and testing may also contribute to the rise in reported cases.

  • Falling vaccination rates: Almost 25 million children missed at least one dose of diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis vaccine in 2021—and the percentage of children with all three doses was at its lowest level in 13 years. Measles, an extremely contagious virus that was eliminated in the U.S. in 2000 has returned. Due to its contagious nature, 95% of young children need to be vaccinated to stop its spread. Current measles vaccination rates among 20 countries are falling below 90%, including the UK at 87%. Epidemiologists cite the return of measles as a barometer on whether other diseases will come back due to decreased vaccination rates.

  • Reduced population immunity: Restrictions on social interaction during the pandemic to reduce the spread of COVID also suppressed the movement of pathogens like influenzas, pneumonia, strep throat, and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV). Because these pathogens were not circulating as much, populations have lowered immunity and are now more susceptible to these viruses. In the U.S., total influenza cases were 28% higher in 2023 than in 2019 and in Europe, 75% higher than in 2019.

  • Climate change: A changing global climate increases the ability of certain diseases like dengue and cholera to spread particularly to areas where they are not usually found. Argentina, for example, saw the largest increase in dengue cases from 3,220 in 2019 to 488,035 in 2024 so far. 

Impact on Workplace Productivity: Low vaccination rates can lead to increased absenteeism, impacting individual businesses and the economy, as employees become ill more frequently or must care for sick children or family members. Use of sick days for white-collar employees was up 42% in 2023, compared to 2019. Those who come into work sick can spread illnesses, reducing productivity and team performance. As experienced during COVID, a single outbreak can disrupt business operations, highlighting the importance of maintaining high vaccination rates among the workforce.

Illness hit employees and employers’ wallets. Low vaccination rates and high illness rates have a significant financial impact on both employees and employers. Employers can expect to see higher medical expenses associated with more frequent and severe illnesses through higher usage and in response, higher premiums. Individuals with lower socio-economic status also are more likely to become ill with infectious diseases. Crowded living conditions and limited access to health care services and nutritious foods increases viral loads and reduces immunity within the community. 

Rise in illness is not just a concern for the medical community. Having navigated through the COVID pandemic, employers and HR teams that recognize the impact low vaccination rates and high illness rates have on the workforce will not only be better prepared for the next surge in illness but highlight their commitment to a healthy workplace. Teams should continue to promote vaccination and compliance with workplace safety regulations to minimize the impact of these illness both within their business and the larger community.

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Authors: Margaret Faso

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