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WHO Calls for New Strategy to Fight Measles - 2003-05-22

The World Health Organization says a new strategy to immunize children against measles can prevent 750,000 children from dying needlessly each year. The WHO says measles is the leading killer of children in developing countries.

The World Health Organization says about 30 million children around the world get the measles each year. It says three-quarters of a million die, more than half of them in Africa.

WHO calls these deaths totally unacceptable because measles can be prevented with a vaccine.

Medical Officer Brad Hersh says WHO and the U.N. Children's Fund have come up with a comprehensive strategy that can save lives if properly implemented.

He says the strategy calls for children being immunized against measles at age nine months through a country's routine immunization system. After that, he says, children should be immunized every three to four years to ensure protection.

"To reduce global measles deaths, WHO and UNICEF are jointly targeting the measles mortality reduction activities to 45 priority countries which account for 95 percent of global measles deaths," he said. "The comprehensive strategy...has been demonstrated to be extremely effective in all countries where it has been implemented. And, the experience in the Americas shows that through this comprehensive strategy measles cases and measles deaths can be brought down to zero."

Dr. Hersh says there is a very good vaccine and a very good strategy available. The challenge is to implement it.

Thirty-one of the 45 high priority countries are in Africa. The rest are in South-East Asia, the Western Pacific, and Mediterranean. Since 2002, WHO says there has not been an indigenous case of measles in the Americas.

Dr. Hersh says the strategy has been used in seven southern African countries with very good results. Since the year 2000, he says measles deaths have been dramatically cut in Botswana, Lesotho, Malawi, Namibia, South Africa, Swaziland, and Zimbabwe.

If implemented correctly, he says the strategy could prevent another 2.3 million child deaths in Africa during the next 10 years. WHO estimates it needs an additional $200 million to carry out this strategy for the next three years.