Measles Deaths in Africa Dropped by Nearly Half Over Five Years

WASHINGTON -- Measles Initiative partners the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) recently announced that global measles deaths have plummeted by 39 percent, from 873,000 in 1999 to an estimated 530,000 in 2003(1). The largest reduction occurred in Africa, the region with the highest burden of the disease, where estimated measles deaths decreased by 46 percent.

"Five years ago, an African child died every minute from measles, a disease that has had a safe, effective, and relatively inexpensive vaccine for more than 40 years," said Dr. Mark Grabowsky, American Red Cross senior technical advisor. "The Measles Initiative, a contributing factor to this reduction, was formed on the basis that these deaths were preventable and a massive number of young lives could be saved for less than one dollar per child. Our success in reducing measles deaths shows the power of a commitment to save lives and reach each at-risk child."

The Measles Initiative works closely with governments of countries affected by measles, African communities and partners to make sure each at- risk child is reached with free measles vaccinations and other appropriate health interventions. Launched in 2001, Initiative partners the American Red Cross, WHO, UNICEF, the United Nations Foundation and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have helped African countries vaccinate more than 150 million children against measles.

Prevention through vaccinations is the key for children to survive measles. So far, essentially all of the 33 measles vaccination campaigns carried out in Africa since 2001 have reached the goal of at least 90 percent of the targeted population. "It really breaks my heart to see so many children dying when you know these deaths can be prevented with a highly effective measles vaccine," said Dr. Lubega, a pediatrician at Mulago Hospital in Uganda, during a campaign. "It is very overwhelming to see so many sick kids knowing that with one shot they could live."

Since health resources for children are not always readily available in Africa, diseases "compete" for these limited resources. When measles vaccination campaigns are carried out, measles wards empty and don't fill up again, and beds open up for children suffering from other diseases. The Initiative effectively increases hospital capacity to treat more children. Within a few weeks after a campaign, hospital bed capacity increases due to the decrease in measles cases. "We want to prevent the disease rather than treat it," said Dr. Makumbi, director of Uganda National Expanded Program of Immunization (UNEPI). "Children who get measles in Africa have a good chance of dying from it."

Significant contributions have been made to the Measles Initiative by the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), Norwegian Aid, Japanese International Agency for Cooperation (JICA), The Vaccine Fund, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Vodafone Foundation, DHL, Sanofi-Synthelabs and Vestergaard-Frandsen. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, Semnani Foundation, ExxonMobil, Starwood, and Izumi Foundation have also made generous contributions. The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, the Canadian Red Cross, the Norwegian Red Cross, and the New Zealand Red Cross have made important financial contributions. Social mobilization, the process to educate and encourage families to bring their children to be vaccinated, is carried out by African Red Cross societies.

Launched in February 2001, the Measles Initiative is a long-term commitment to control measles deaths in Africa by vaccinating 200 million children and preventing 1.2 million deaths over five years. Leading this effort is the American Red Cross, United Nations Foundation, CDC, UNICEF and the WHO. Other key players in the fight against measles include the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and countries and governments affected by measles.

While the Measles Initiative is focused in Africa where the majority of measles-related deaths occur, partners also work on a wide-range of health initiatives around the world, including measles control and other vaccination services outside of Africa.

(1) 2003 is the latest year for which measles mortality data are available.

Source: American Red Cross