A coalition of global health agencies has announced the start of a new vaccination campaign to eradicate deaths from measles and rubella worldwide.
The launch comes during World Immunization week (April 21-28), which is a U.N.-coordinated effort to focus international attention on the importance of vaccination against deadly diseases.
Measles, one of the most infectious diseases on the planet, is a leading cause of death and disability among children worldwide, especially in the developing world, even though a safe and cost-effective vaccine is available. The announcement of the new vaccination drive comes with fresh data on measles mortality rates from the World Health Organization.
The WHO is a partner in the new initiative, led also by the American Red Cross, the United Nations Foundation, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the United Nations Children’s Fund, or UNICEF.
Anthony Lake, executive director of UNICEF, says worldwide immunization campaigns have brought the number of measles deaths from 2.5 million in 1980 to just 139,000 today - and produced a 74 percent drop in mortality since 2000. Lake says the vaccines reach about 95 percent of all children, even in remote and impoverished areas.
Vaccinations in Nigeria. Countries in sub-Saharan Africa accounted for 36 percent of global measles deaths in 2010.
"Really this is one of the most remarkable victories in the history of public health," Lake says. "But, just as that is the good news, the bad news is that measles still claims 382 lives, every day, the vast majority of them children under five. And every one of them could have been saved by two doses of a 22-cent vaccine.”
Within the next three years, the new strategy aims to cut global measles infections by 95 percent from their 2000 level. A second goal is to eradicate rubella by 2020 in five regions of the world.
WHO director of immunizations Jean Marie Okwo Bele believes there is reason to be optimistic.
"We have seen the great progress made in China that has led to all of that region, [the] western Pacific region, to be close to eliminating measles in the very near future," Okwo Bele says. "We have seen India scaling up this effort and we have also seen that several outbreaks in southern Africa are being now controlled.”
The new initiative encourages some 62 countries not vaccinating against rubella to do so with a combination measles-rubella shot. This would ensure that no infant is born with a rubella-related congenital disease, which can range from heart defects to deafness and blindness.
The plan also calls for high vaccination coverage, disease monitoring and surveillance, rapid response to outbreaks, disease research and development of new diagnostic tools.
David Meltzer, senior vice president of International Services at the American Red Cross, says coordinated community engagement is essential to make the plan work.
“It starts at the government, often the head of state publicizing community health days," he says. "There is use of traditional media, social media, organizing entertainment venues to bring the people out from their homes and into the community and in many countries it is utilizing community-based organizations, in particular the Red Cross and the Red Crescent or often the neighbors of the mothers. And they go door to door encouraging the mothers to bring their children out to the vaccination posts.”
But funding is down, says Kathy Calvin, CEO of the United Nations Foundation, another partner in the inoculation initiative. She says an additional $112 million is needed to achieve the global measles and rubella goal by 2015.
“We need everyone, from world leaders to individuals to step up their commitment to stop measles and rubella, if we are going to meet our goal.”
Calvin adds that a small donation from people worldwide can go a long way and help save many lives.