World on target to halve measles deaths by year's end, UN agencies report

World on target to halve measles deaths by year's end, UN agencies report

Measles immunization
Deaths from measles, which only a decade ago killed millions of children each year, have plummeted by nearly 40 per cent since 1999 thanks to mass vaccination campaigns, with countries on target to halve mortality by year's end and Africa leading the world in the decrease, United Nations agencies announced today.

"Progress of this magnitude is remarkable," World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Lee Jong-wook said. "I congratulate countries for their successful efforts in protecting children from measles. I am certain that with increased commitment from governments and further support from the international community, even more can be accomplished."

Global measles deaths dropped 39 per cent to an estimated 530,000 in 2003, from 873,000 in 1999, with the largest reduction occurring in Africa, the region with the highest burden of the disease, where estimated measles deaths decreased by 46 per cent.

"In many places where families once lived in fear of losing their children to measles, they're now protected by an effective and inexpensive vaccine," UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) Executive Director Carol Bellamy said of the scourge that beyond its death toll also sickened 30 million more children, leaving many with life-long disabilities like blindness and brain damage.

"What clearer proof could there be of the value of investing in immunization?" she added. "We now have the opportunity to replicate this successful model as we tackle other child killers such as malaria."

The dramatic decline in deaths has been made possible through the commitment of governments to fully implement the WHO/UNICEF strategy for sustainable measles mortality reduction, seeking to achieve routine measles immunization coverage of at least 90 per cent in every district. As measles wards shut down all over the African continent, a long-term budget item in many hospitals can be freed up to save children from other diseases.

But millions of children still remain at risk. Malnourished and un-immunized children under five years of age, especially infants, are at high risk of contracting measles and are more vulnerable to death. The vast majority of measles deaths are found in low-income countries. Each year more than 130 million children are born and "we must reach each and every one with measles vaccination," Dr. Lee said.