A new study by the Measles Initiative, a coalition of U.N. and international organizations finds measles deaths worldwide fell by 78 percent between 2000 and 2008. But, the agencies warn of a resurgence in measles deaths if vaccination efforts are not sustained.
The study finds measles deaths dropped from an estimated 733,000 in 2000 to 164,000 in 2008. It says all regions, with the exception of South-East Asia, have achieved the United Nations goal of cutting measles deaths two years ahead of target.
One of the biggest success stories is found in Africa, where measles-related deaths have declined by 92 percent since 2000.
Jean-Marie Okwo-Bele is Director of Immunization, Vaccines and Biologicals at the World Health Organization. He says the measles vaccine has saved about 4.3 million children's lives in less than a decade.
Despite this rapid progress, he warns the momentum in the worldwide vaccination drive appears to be stalling, putting children's lives at risks. He notes global measles deaths leveled off in 2007.
"And, if this trend is not reversed, our projection shows that the combined effects of decreasing political and financial commitment from national governments and donors could result in an estimated 1.7 million measles-related deaths between 2010 and 2013, with more than half a million deaths in 2013 alone," he said.
Measles is among the world's most contagious diseases and one of the leading causes of death among children worldwide. The Measles Initiative notes even healthy and well-nourished children, if unvaccinated, are at risk of the disease and its severe health complications. These include pneumonia, diarrhea, and encephalitis.
Executive-Director of the U.N. Children's Fund, Ann Veneman, says of the estimated 164,000 measles related deaths in 2008, 90 percent were among children under five.
"Much remains to be done. Measles still kills more than 400 children every day," she said. "This is an unacceptable reality when a safe, effective and inexpensive vaccine to prevent the disease exists and the poorest children continue to pay the highest price in terms of lives and opportunities lost."
Walter Orenstein is Deputy Director for Vaccine-Preventable Diseases at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. He applauds the success, which has been achieved and says it is important not to slip back.
"Each day children are born and if they are not immunized as recommended, they accumulate in the population to the point that they can fuel a major resurgence of disease," he said. "That would certainly be a tragedy for children and families and for all those countries that have come so far."
The Measles Initiative says countries must continue follow-up vaccination campaigns every two to four years to eliminate the risk of resurgence. It says this must be done until their healthcare systems can provide two doses of measles vaccination to all children and provide treatment for the disease. The agencies say they need $59 million to achieve this goal.