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Major Measles Initiative Targets Africa - 2002-02-07

Five leading global public health organizations have announced an immunization drive in Africa to bring down the number of deaths among children caused by measles. They hope to spare the lives of more than one million children over the next five years.

The campaign, led by the American Red Cross, aims to cut measles deaths in Africa in half by inoculating 200 million children through 2005. As American Red Cross interim president Harold Decker suggests, the job is a big one.

"We know that measles causes more than 450,000 deaths in Africa every year," said Mr. Decker. "We know the kind of suffering measles inflicts on many of those children that die: Pneumonia, encephalitis, diarrhea, blindness, and more. We know that today it is the leading cause of death among unvaccinated children."

The measles death toll in Africa is half the global total and it takes more African lives than AIDS, tuberculosis, or malaria. The director of vaccines at the World Health Organization, Dr. Danny Tarantola, notes it is one of the most feared diseases on the continent. "Measles is seen in many communities as the one disease that will challenge the survival of children," he said. "In some communities, children will not be given a name unless they have had measles."

To lower the toll, the American Red Cross formed a partnership last year with the U.S. government's Centers for Disease Control, the World Health Organization, the United Nations Foundation, and the U.N. Children's Fund. The five groups have committed $200 million toward the African measles immunization drive. That amounts to a cost of just about $1 per child.

Although the campaign was just announced, it actually got underway last year with the inoculation of more than 20 million children in Tanzania, Uganda, Mali, Burkina Faso, Ghana, Togo, Benin, and Cameroon. Partnership officials say the initial drive reached 95 percent of the children in those countries and saved more than 140,000 lives.

Africa is the focus of the program because it has a low measles immunization rate. The world average for measles vaccination coverage was 80 percent by 2000, and there are no more cases of the disease in the Americas. But 18 countries reported less than 50 percent coverage in 2000, and 14 of them were in Africa.

Ugandan Red Cross Society official Rose Kinuka told a Washington news conference that immunization is often mistrusted in Africa. The Ugandan government sent volunteers from her agency through the countryside to counter anti-immunization broadcasts by a Ugandan radio station during the nation's vaccination campaign last November. "It was giving out messages that immunization is not good for the children, that if they take their children for immunization, their children will die," she said. "Many African communities do not understand the value of having their children immunized."

The measles immunization initiative plans to target 53 million children in 12 more countries this year, including Kenya in June. It anticipates this will prevent more than 90,000 deaths.

To carry out the campaign, the partners are drawing on the experience of the polio eradication drive led by Rotary International. The physician in charge of global health programs at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, Steve Blount, says the polio operation helped build an infrastructure the measles eradication effort is using.

"The trained people, the development of the capacity in the laboratory, the surveillance capacity to identify cases, the management skill, the close relationship with vaccine producers all have led to this point where we are at the beginning of the end for polio," said Mr. Blount. "[It] leads us to believe that this is the most propitious time to begin this accelerated effort with measles."

As the five global health organizations work in Africa, they are exploring potential support to bring their measles inoculation campaign to other regions.