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WHO Launches Measle Vaccination Campaign in Afghanistan - 2002-01-04

The Afghan Ministry of Health, the United Nations and private aid agencies are joining forces to immunize about nine million Afghan children against measles. The nationwide campaign will target all children between the ages of six months and 12 years.

The World Health Organization says thousands of Afghan children die each year from measles. WHO spokesman Gregory Hartl said Friday that during the next three months, health care workers will vaccinate children throughout Afghanistan.

The measles immunization campaign, which began this week in the Afghan capital, Kabul, will cost $8 million (U.S.)

Mr. Hartl said the vaccination rate in Afghanistan is extremely low, which is why this new program is so important. "Only approximately 40 percent of all Afghan children get the vaccines they need to survive childhood diseases and measles is probably the most frequent killer among the vaccine-preventable diseases in the world," he said. "Afghanistan has the third highest childhood mortality in the world from measles. Approximately, 35,000 children per year die in Afghanistan from measles."

Past measles immunization campaigns in the country have been hampered by a lack of money, decades of conflict and a shortage of trained personnel.

The World Health Organization says measles spreads easily. Epidemics occur in places where people live in poverty and in overcrowded conditions. Severe measles cases are likely to occur among malnourished children.

Mr. Hartl said Afghan children living in squalid camps for internally displaced people are at great risk of getting the disease and then dying from it. He said the change of government is making this campaign against measles possible. "Under the Taleban regime, obviously things were more difficult because of, for example, women's lack of access to health care. And, so women who could not get access to health care facilities, could not get out of the house, had trouble bringing in their children to be vaccinated. There might also have been a problem with supplies in the past," he explained.

Mr. Hartl said all of WHO's international staff will return to Afghanistan during the coming weeks. The foreign workers left the country after the September 11 attacks in the United States. Mr. Hartl said their return will allow WHO to start rehabilitating the country's shattered health care system and to expand vital health services.