/ 29 November 2007

Africa slashes measles deaths by 91%

In a rare public-health success story on the world’s most beleaguered continent, Africa has slashed deaths from measles by 91% since 2000 thanks to an immunisation drive.

The Measles Initiative said on Thursday that worldwide measles deaths fell from an estimated 757 000 to 242 000 between 2000 and 2006, a reduction of 68% made possible by the remarkable gains in Africa, which cut fatalities from an estimated 396 000 to 36 000.

It said that South Asia — notably the Indian subcontinent — now remains the toughest challenge. An estimated 178 000 people died of measles in the region last year — only 26% down on 2000.

The figures are a mixture of projections and hard epidemiological data.

The Measles Initiative — which includes the American Red Cross, the United States Centres for Disease Prevention and Control (CDC), the World Health Organisation and the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) — now hopes to take the strategy that worked so well from Africa, where trained volunteers formed the backbone, to India, where an estimated 10,5-million children are not immunised.

”The clear message from this achievement is that the strategy works,” said CDC director Dr Julie Gerberding of the drive to vaccinate all children against measles before their first birthday and provide a second opportunity for measles vaccination through mass vaccination campaigns.

But she said the death toll of 600 per day remains unacceptably high. ”We have a very safe and effective vaccine and we have to do a lot better,” she told reporters on a conference call.

Between 2000 and 2006, an estimated 478-million children aged nine months to 14 years received measles vaccine through campaigns in 46 out of the 47 priority countries severely affected by the disease.

In 2006, global routine measles vaccination coverage reached an estimated 80% for the first time, up from 72% in 2000. The largest improvements in vaccination coverage were in the African and the Eastern Mediterranean regions.

The example of Zimbabwe, whose health system is collapsing under an economic crisis marked by acute shortages and an inflation rate of at least 8 000%, highlights the commitment of even the hardest-pressed African countries’ authorities toward immunisation.

The official Herald newspaper said an ongoing national vaccination campaign has been met with an overwhelming response from mothers. It aims to reach two million children under five countrywide with vaccines against measles, polio, whooping cough, diphtheria and tetanus.

Range of actions

Bonnie McElveen-Hunter, chairperson of the board of the American Red Cross, said the real beauty of the Measles Initiative is that its trained volunteers — some of them riding bicycles, horses and even camels to reach remote areas — can be pressed into service for a range of actions on basic healthcare.

In 2006, 21-million insecticide-treated bed nets for malaria prevention were distributed and 87-million doses of vitamin A, which helps prevent blindness, were handed out during measles vaccination campaigns. ”It’s having a tremendous impact on child mortality,” said McElveen-Hunter.

Mormon missionaries have been involved in encouraging parents to vaccinate their children in Africa.

Unicef reported in September that the number of children dying worldwide had dropped below 10-million a year for the first time, thanks to basic measures such as anti-mosquito nets, vitamin A boosts and vaccines.

The success comes against a backdrop of increased political commitment to tackling easily preventable diseases.

The Global Alliance on Vaccines and Immunisation said on Wednesday that it had managed to inject $1-billion of new funding into vaccination drives in the past year by using the capital markets to raise short-term loans with the guarantee provided by long-term funding pledges.

The alliance board on Thursday approved programmes to the tune of $537-million for vaccines in 29 of the world’s poorest countries. It said $370-million will go to countries immunising against a type of bacteria that causes severe infections, including meningitis and pneumonia, and kills an estimated 400 000 children every year. — Sapa-AP