An ambitious worldwide immunization drive has cut measles deaths by nearly half, with the largest reduction occurring in sub-Saharan Africa, the region with the highest burden of the disease, United Nations agencies announced today.
“This is an outstanding public health success story,” World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Lee Jong-wook said of the latest figures, which show mortality falling by 48 per cent, from 871,000 in 1999 to an estimated 454,000 in 2004, thanks to major national immunization drives and better access to routine childhood immunization.
In sub-Saharan Africa estimated measles cases and deaths dropped by 60 per cent.
“If progress continues at this rate, the global goal to cut measles deaths by half will have been achieved on time,” Dr. Lee declared of the target of halving mortality by the end of 2005.
Measles is one of the most contagious diseases known, especially among children under five years of age who accounted for some 410,000 of the deaths in 2004. “Measles remains a major killer of children in the developing world, but it doesn't have to be,” UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) Executive Director Ann M. Veneman said.
“Just two doses of an inexpensive, safe, and available measles vaccine can prevent most, if not all, measles deaths,” she added, noting that the vaccine has been available since the 1960s.
Many children succumb to complications related to severe diarrhoea and pneumonia. Many who survive are left with lifelong disabilities including blindness and brain damage. Weak immunization networks that are unable to deliver measles vaccine to the young remain the primary reason for countries still experiencing high measles deaths.
WHO and UNICEF have focused their operations on 47 countries that account for about 98 per cent of global measles deaths, working to improve routine immunization, treat infected children and strengthen disease surveillance. From 1999 to 2004, nearly 500 million children were immunized.
While African countries have made great improvements, progress in South Asia has been slow. The challenge now is to increase immunization there to at least 90 per cent, ensuring that all children receive a first dose of vaccine at nine months.
A key factor in the success has been the strong support of the Measles Initiative, grouping UN, national and private organizations. Since its launch in 2001, it has supported vaccination efforts in over 40 African countries and raised more than $150 million with help from partners such as the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization.