Measles, a highly contagious viral disease mostly affecting children, has been making a rapid come back, threatening to roll back the progress made through vaccination campaigns during the past two decades, the United Nations health agency warned today.
Peter Strebel, a medical officer in the department of immunization and vaccines of the UN World Health Organization (WHO), told reporters in Geneva on the sidelines of the 63rd World Health Assembly, the agency’s decision-making organ, that anti-measles efforts had suffered from inadequate funding and lack of political commitment since 2008.
As a result there had been major measles outbreaks in several countries across the world since last year. According to WHO, the combined effects of decreased financial and poor political commitment could lead to over 500,000 deaths a year by 2012, wiping out the gains that had been made over the past two decades.
Mr. Strebel said that delegates to the assembly yesterday endorsed a series of interim targets to be met by 2015 to pave the way for the eradication of measles.
They, however, highlighted challenges that needed to be overcome to achieve the 2015 targets. The challenges include competing public health priorities, weak immunization systems, sustaining high routine vaccination coverage and plugging the $298 million funding gap for global anti-measles efforts.
Ensuring children in hard-to reach populations received vaccinations and addressing an increasing number of measles outbreaks particularly in cross-border areas were the other challenges.
According to Mr. Strebel, measles deaths among children under the age of five fell by 89 per cent from 1.1 million in 1990 to 118,000 in 2008, accounting for nearly 25 per cent of the total decline in child mortality over that period.
In the assembly, Member States also discussed a global strategy to reduce the harmful use of alcohol. They urged WHO to implement the strategy in collaboration with States, monitor progress and provide support to countries to strengthen national responses to public health problems caused by the harmful use of alcohol.
Each year, 2.5 million people worldwide die of alcohol-related causes and harmful drinking is a risk factor for non-communicable diseases. Alcohol is also associated with various infectious diseases, as well as traffic accidents, violence and suicides, they noted.
In her closing remarks at the end of the assembly today, WHO’s Director-General Margaret Chan, thanked delegates for agreeing on code of practice on the international recruitment of health personnel.
“In addition, you have given public health a policy instrument and guidance for tackling one of the world’s fastest growing and most alarming health problems. This is the rise of chronic non-communicable diseases, like cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes, and chronic respiratory disease,” she said.
“Many of these diseases develop slowly, but lifestyle changes that increase the risk are taking place with a stunning speed and sweep. We know that the harmful use of alcohol and unhealthy diets are two of the four risk factors for these diseases,” Ms. Chan added.
She also lauded the resolution on the marketing of foods and non-alcoholic beverages to children, saying some 43 million pre-school children worldwide are obese or overweight.
“Think of what this means in terms of life-long risks to their health. Think about the life-long demands for care at a time when most health systems are already overburdened, under-funded, and dangerously understaffed,” Ms. Chan said.