GENEVA/NEW YORK (March 4, 2005) -- The World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) today announced that countries are on target to halve deaths from measles, a leading vaccine-preventable killer, by the end of this year. Global measles deaths have plummeted by 39%, from 873 000 in 1999 to an estimated 530 000 in 2003.
The largest reduction occurred in Africa, the region with the highest burden of the disease, where estimated measles deaths decreased by 46%.
"Progress of this magnitude is remarkable. I congratulate countries for their successful efforts in protecting children from measles," said Dr LEE Jong-wook, WHO Director-General. "I am certain that with increased commitment from governments and further support from the international community, even more can be accomplished."
Measles is an important cause of childhood deaths. Only a decade ago, measles killed millions of children each year and affected 30 million more, leaving many with life-long disabilities like blindness and brain damage.
"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," said Carol Bellamy, Executive Director of UNICEF. "What clearer proof could there be of the value of investing in immunization?"
The dramatic decline in measles deaths is made possible through the commitment of governments to fully implement the WHO/UNICEF strategy for sustainable measles mortality reduction.
The strategy seeks to achieve routine measles immunization coverage of at least 90% in every district and to ensure that every child from nine months to 14 years of age receives a "second opportunity" for measles immunization through routine services or supplementary immunization activities (SIAs) every three to four years. The SIAs have proven especially effective. From 1999 to 2003, more than 350 million children throughout the world were vaccinated against measles through SIAs.
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.
“We now have the opportunity to replicate this successful model as we tackle other child killers such as malaria,” Bellamy said, noting that in late 2004, Togo’s children received four life-saving interventions at once. The landmark campaign reached over 95% of the children under-five with vaccines to prevent measles and polio, mosquito nets to prevent malaria and de-worming tablets.
Millions of children still remain at risk from measles. 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," said Dr LEE.
The strong support of the Measles Initiative has been an important factor in the marked reduction of measles deaths in Africa. Launched in 2001, this successful partnership's core founding members are WHO, UNICEF, the American Red Cross, the United Nations Foundation and the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention of the United States Department of Health and Human Services.. Since 2001, the Initiative has mobilized more than US $144 million and has helped African countries vaccinate over 150 million children against measles.
Other key partners include the governments of Australia, Canada, Japan and the United Kingdom as well as the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization (GAVI) and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
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