International public health officials say the number of deaths from measles has dropped sharply in developing nations since 1999, with the biggest decline in Africa. VOA's David McAlary has more on the story from Washington.
A coalition of public health and charitable agencies called the Measles Initiative reports that global measles deaths plunged 60 percent between 1999 and 2005. World Health Organization Director-General Margaret Chan says the drop in Africa, the region hardest hit by the disease, has been 75 percent.
"Today's announcement is an historic victory for global public health," said Margaret Chan. "The good news is Africa is leading the way."
The Measles Initiative says the big decline in Africa is the main reason the global drop exceeded the United Nations target for a 50 percent reduction in deaths from the virus.
Dr. Chan says the number of measles deaths fell from 873,000 in 1999 to 345,000 by the end of 2005, with an estimated 2.3 million children saved.
"Instead of seeing numerous fresh graves for young children, this is something of the past," she said. "Another important sign is many measles wards have become empty in hospitals in Africa."
Health officials attribute the success to increased immunization rates promoted by the Measles Initiative since its 2001 inception and support from national governments. The strategy involved two doses of measles vaccine with supplements of vitamin A.
The executive director of UNICEF, Ann Veneman, says the rate for first vaccination increased from 71 percent to 77 percent between 1999 and 2005, with inoculations given to 360 million children aged nine months to 15 years.
"When we look at this kind of success, it gives us hope as we look toward achieving the Millennium Development Goals, particularly the goal that calls for the reducing of child mortality by two-thirds from 1990 levels with the end date of 2015," said Ann Veneman.
The chief of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, Julie Gerberding, says the success of the measles campaign so far has encouraged the coalition to set a new target of reducing measles deaths 90 percent by 2010. The aim is to be more aggressive in Asia and the eastern Mediterranean region.
Gerberding says the approach is a model that can be used to attack other diseases.
"I truly believe we will not only exceed this Measles Initiative goal, but we will build on this opportunity to solve the other global health problems that affect not only the children around the world, but many adults as well," said Julie Gerberding.
Yet whether measles can be eradicated as smallpox was is a different matter.
Health officials say it is conceivable because the virus does not exist in animals, it is stable and mutates little, and the vaccine is effective.
However, they also note that several factors could prevent eradication. The virus is highly infectious and requires continued high vaccine coverage, but 29 million children in developing nations still do not receive routine measles shots and wars in several countries prevent mass vaccination campaigns.
"At this stage, I think it is too early to talk about eradication," she said.
Again, World Health Organization chief Margaret Chan.
"It's something we can talk about and see the next stage after we have achieved the new goal," noted Margaret Chan.