The World Health Organization (WHO)
and the United Nation's Children's Fund (UNICEF)
today announced a global reduction of 30% in deaths from measles between 1999 and 2002. At 35%, the reduction in measles deaths was even greater in Africa, the region with the highest number of people affected by the disease.
This progress demonstrates that collectively countries can achieve the United Nations goal of cutting global measles deaths in half by the end of 2005.
The news comes as countries take part in Vaccination Week in the Americas (April 24-30). During the week, millions of people are being immunized against several vaccine-preventable diseases, with a focus on children, women and the elderly and those people living in rural border regions.
Despite the availability of a safe, effective, inexpensive vaccine for over 40 years, measles remains the leading vaccine-preventable killer of children.
In 1999, the benchmark year, some 869 000 people – mostly children – died of measles. In 2002 1 , measles killed an estimated 610 000 people, a decline of 30%.
"This is great news. Countries are to be commended for their efforts to fight measles-- efforts that are truly paying off,” said UNICEF Executive Director Carol Bellamy. Since 1999, almost 260 000 deaths per year have been prevented, she noted. "But we have to keep up the work and the funding as still far too many children's lives are lost to measles."
Recent progress is due to the adoption by the most affected countries of the comprehensive WHO/UNICEF strategy for sustainable measles mortality reduction. At a WHO/UNICEF meeting in Cape Town, South Africa in October 2003, Ministry of Health representatives from 45 high-burden countries agreed that this strategy was highly effective in reducing measles deaths in a sustainable fashion.
The strategy is based on achieving at least 80% routine measles immunization coverage in every district, and ensuring that all children get a second opportunity for measles immunization either through routine services or periodic Supplemental Immunization Activities (SIAs) every three to four years, whereby every child from nine months to five years of age is immunized over a one to two week period.
The SIAs have proven especially effective. While routine measles coverage remained relatively constant at approximately 73% over the period 1999-2002, more than 145 million children in 21 of the 45 high-burden countries were vaccinated against measles through SIAs in that same period of time.
“Countries have proven that routine immunization and supplemental measles immunization will reduce measles deaths. This is an extremely important step. Now WHO encourages all high-burden countries to implement these strategies, and stands ready to help," said Dr LEE Jong-wook, WHO Director-General. “However success also requires more resources, and a long-term commitment of leaders to permanently reducing measles deaths."
The estimated annual cost for measles mortality reduction activities in the 45 high burden countries is approximately US$ 140 million.
An important factor in the 35% decrease in measles deaths in Africa has been the strong support of the Africa Measles Partnership which has rapidly implemented the WHO/UNICEF strategy. Starting in 2001, this partnership, with core membership of national governments, WHO, UNICEF, the American Red Cross, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention of the United States Department of Health and Human Services and the United Nations Foundation, committed itself to funding and implementing large-scale measles SIAs reaching over 90% of all children in targeted African countries.
Other key partners include the governments of Australia, Canada and Japan as well as the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.