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WHO: Measles Deaths Down 91 Percent in Africa

Deaths from Measles have been slashed in Africa by 91 percent since 2000, according to the latest figures provided by the World Health Organization. The success story is the result of a massive vaccination campaign coordinated by the Measles Initiative, a group launched in 2001 to reduce measles deaths around the world. While the organization is celebrating the tremendous decline, international public health officials say more needs to be done to reach children at risk of dying from the disease. VOA's Jessica Berman reports.

The Measles Initiative, which includes the World Health Organization, American Red Cross, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and UNICEF, says the number of deaths from measles on the African continent declined from 396,000 to 36,000, a remarkable 91 per cent drop, thanks to a major drive to vaccinate children.

The Initiative says large reductions were also seen in the western Pacific and the eastern Mediterranean.

The drop contributed to an estimated 68 percent global reduction in measles deaths, from 756,000 to 242,000 from 2000 until now.

The Measles Initiative credits the sharp decline in deaths to the immunization, between 2000 and 2006, of an estimated 478 million children between nine months of age and age 14. The group says that for the first time in 2006, 80 percent of children who need immunization against measles were vaccinated.

Julie Gerberding is Director of the US Centers for Disease Control.

"We're celebrating this incredible progress," Gerberding said. "But we also have to acknowledge that 242,000 children dying of measles is still way too many."

Gerberding says 600 children per day die of measles, many of them in India. Deaths from measles in South Asia stood at 178 thousand last year.

The Initiative hopes to dispatch trained volunteers to the region to undertake the same intensive campaign that has worked in Africa.

Luis Sambo is Regional Director for WHO in Africa. Sambo says the success announced Thursday is not the end of the story.

"We cannot drop our guard against this killer disease," Sambo said. "We know that the children being born today, tomorrow and the next day will need the life-saving benefits of vaccination."

Officials say the measles immunization campaign has brought with it other health benefits, including the distribution of millions of insecticide-treated bed nets to protect families against malaria, de-worming medication and vitamin A to prevent blindness and fortify children who become ill with measles.

Bonnie McElveen-Hunter is Chairman of the Board of the American Red Cross, whose volunteers helped immunize children. McElveen-Hunter says the workers reached the youngsters however they could.

"Some on foot, some taking boats, some on motorcycles, and even some riding camels to reach families in remote locations," McElveen-Hunter said.

Meanwhile, the Global Alliance on Vaccines and Immunizations announced it has invested $1 billion over the last year in new vaccination drives.

The group says the money has been raised on world capital markets, with loans guaranteed by donor governments. The program is the brainchild of British Prime Minister Gordon Brown.