Measles deaths dramatically cut by 74 per cent worldwide – UN health agency

A boy receives vitamin A droplets

4 December 2008 – Measles deaths have plummeted by some 74 per cent worldwide since 2000, the United Nations announced today, while warning that the problem has still not been eradicated.

The estimated number of people dying from measles each year dropped dramatically from an estimated 750,000 to 197,000 between 2000 and 2007, thanks to improvements in routine and supplementary immunization activities.

In the same period, the Eastern Mediterranean region – including Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia and the Sudan – has cut measles deaths from 96,000 to 10,000, achieving the UN goal of reducing measles deaths by 90 per cent three years ahead of time.

“This significant decline in measles deaths in the region was made possible by the hard work and dedication of national governments to fully implement the measles mortality reduction strategy with the support of the Measles Initiative partners,” said UN World Health Organization (WHO) Regional Director, Eastern Mediterranean Region, Hussein Abdel-Razzak Al Gezairy in remarks to the press this morning.

The major reduction in measles deaths in the Eastern Mediterranean region was a result of ramping up vaccination campaigns, with more than twice the number of children immunized in 2007 compared to the previous year.

“Going forward, however, we cannot drop our guard against this disease. We know that children being born today, tomorrow and the next day will need the life-saving benefits of vaccination,” said Dr. Al Gezairy in remarks read by his colleague, Peter Strebel.

“Countries must plan and budget for periodic nationwide measles vaccination campaigns to make sure all children are protected by vaccination. If this is not done systematically we could see a reversal of the gains made,” he added.

The progress was announced at a press conference today by the partners of the Measles Initiative – the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the UN Foundation and WHO, as well as the American Red Cross and the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention of (CDC) – ahead of tomorrow’s WHO report, which will include the latest data on measles mortality.

Although more than 3.6 million lives have been saved, measles is still one of the leading killers of children worldwide, with an estimated 540 dying each day from the disease, the Initiative said in a press release issued today.

Africa saw the largest decrease in measles deaths, accounting for roughly 63 per cent of the reduction in worldwide deaths over the eight-year period. In 2007, however, measles outbreaks occurred in a number of African countries due to gaps in immunization coverage, reinforcing the need to remain vigilant against the disease.

South-East Asia only experienced a 42 per cent decline in measles deaths due to the delayed implementation of large-scale vaccination campaigns in India, which currently accounts for two-thirds of global measles deaths.

“Much needs to be done. An estimated 500 children a day die of measles. This is an unacceptable reality when there is a safe, effective and inexpensive vaccine to prevent the disease,” said UNICEF Executive Director Ann M. Veneman.

“Of the estimated 197,000 measles related deaths in 2007, 90 per cent or an estimated 177,000 were children, who died before their fifth birthday,” Ms. Veneman added.

Success in reaching the 2010 goal of reducing measles death by 90 per cent worldwide depends on ensuring that all children receive two doses of the measles vaccine including one dose by their first birthday, strengthening disease surveillance systems and providing effective treatment for measles.

“Progress also depends on addressing the considerable funding gap,” said Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer for the UN Foundation Kathy Calvin.

“Currently the shortfall stands at $176 million for 2009-2010, of which $35 million is urgently needed for 2009. During these tough economic times it is important to remember that prevention is always more cost effective in the long run than treatment,” said Ms. Calvin.

“For only a $1 a vaccination, measles can be prevented,” she added.

Measles infection occurs through the spread of nasal and oral fluids. After an incubation period of seven to 14 days, the first symptoms are fever, nasal discharge and redness of the eyes. Measles is a contributing cause of malnutrition, which in turn increases the risk of contracting measles.

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