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WHO Aims To Eradicate Measles Worldwide

Dr. Pierre François Unger, State Councillor of the Canton of Geneva, addresses delegates at the opening of the Sixty-third World Health Assembly, 17 May 2010
Dr. Pierre François Unger, State Councillor of the Canton of Geneva, addresses delegates at the opening of the Sixty-third World Health Assembly, 17 May 2010

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Lisa Schlein

The 193-member World Health Assembly has agreed to work for the global eradication of measles. The assembly, which wraps up its annual meeting Friday, says these goals are achievable, but, agrees a long and determined commitment by states is needed to be successful.

The World Health Organization says much progress has been made in cutting deaths from measles. But, it says wiping this deadly disease from the face of the earth poses a formidable challenge.

Given the difficulties ahead, the World Health Assembly approved a resolution to eradicate measles worldwide, but set no target date for achieving this goal.

Instead, medical officer in WHO's Department of Immunization, Vaccines and Biologicals, Peter Strebel, says the assembly endorsed a series of interim targets as milestones toward this end.

"These targets are set for 2015 and are to achieve at least 90 percent measles vaccination coverage nationally and 80 percent coverage in every district, reduce measles cases to less than five per million population, reduce measles mortality by 95 percent compared to 2000 levels," Strebel said.

U.N. health agencies have made huge strides in reducing the number of children dying from measles. Measles deaths among children under five years of age have fallen by 89 percent from more than one million to 118,000 in 2008. The biggest successes have been made in Africa.

Unfortunately, starting in 2008, WHO says progress has stagnated because of a big decline in funding and lessening of political commitment for measles control.

Indeed, Dr. Strebel says measles, one of the most contagious diseases, is making a rapid comeback. Over the past year, he says there have been large measles outbreaks in 37 countries, 30 of them in Africa.

Over the past 12 months, he says more than 64,000 measles cases have been reported and more than 1,100 measles deaths in the African region alone.

"The countries that have experienced the most deaths include Zimbabwe, Chad and Nigeria," Strebel adds. "More alarmingly, WHO estimates if the combined effect of decreased financial and political commitment were to be sustained or continued, this could result to a return of a half a million measles deaths each year by 2012, wiping out the gains made over the past 18 years."  

Dr. Strebel says the Millennium Development Goal aimed at reducing child mortality by two-thirds by 2015 will be missed if measles outbreaks continue to spread. He says it costs less than $1.00 to vaccinate a child against measles. It costs less than $1.00 to save a child's life.

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