The latest United Nations figures show the number of people dying of measles across the world has fallen by almost half. The World Health Organization (WHO) and the U.N. Children's Fund (UNICEF) report deaths fell from 871,000 in 1999 to 454,000 in 2004.
A safe, cheap and effective measles vaccine has been available for the past 40 years. Yet, measles remains a leading cause of death among young children in developing countries. But, results from a six-year immunization drive, spearheaded by the World Health Organization and the U.N. Children's Fund, provides hope that this terrible situation may be changing.
The main focus of this measles campaign has been in sub-Saharan Africa, where the largest number of children die from this contagious disease.
Peter Strebel is medical officer in WHO's Department of Immunizations, Vaccines and Biologicals. He tells VOA that children in sub-Saharan Africa are at particular risk, because immunization levels are low, and many children suffer from vitamin A deficiency and malnutrition.
"In Sub-Saharan Africa, again, on average, there is more vitamin A deficiency and severe outcomes from measles than in other parts of the world," he said. "So, if you then put those two together, back in 1999 at the beginning of the program, nearly 60 percent, a little over 60 percent, of all the estimated measles deaths worldwide were occurring in sub-Saharan Africa."
In a remarkable turnabout, Dr. Strebel says, the estimated measles cases and deaths in sub-Saharan Africa now has dropped by 60 percent, the largest reduction anywhere.
He says the campaign was given a major boost by the Measles Initiative launched in 2001. The Initiative is a partnership formed to reduce and control measles deaths. It is led by the American Red Cross, the U.N. Foundation, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, UNICEF and WHO.
WHO and UNICEF have concentrated their immunization activities in 47 countries that account for about 98 percent of global measles deaths. The initiative has raised more than $150 million dollars in support of vaccination efforts in over 40 African countries.
Dr. Strebel says this has been a key factor in the success of the program.
"The areas in the world where children have died are ones where the routine provision of health services is weak," he said. "In other words, children are not receiving their regular shots. And, so, what the success has really been is using the measles partnership, in collaboration with the country immunization programs, to actually provide the resources and the vaccine, usually administered in mass vaccination campaigns to children between the ages of nine months and 14 years."
Dr. Strebel says most deaths and disability from measles can be prevented by giving children two doses of the vaccine.
While African countries have made great improvements in reducing measles deaths, progress in the South Asia region has been slow. The U.N. agencies say they plan to expand their immunization program in south Asia and in parts of Africa where the problem persists.