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Global measles deaths plunge by 48% over past six years

Joint News Release WHO/UNICEF

An ambitious global immunization drive has cut measles deaths by nearly half between 1999 and 2004, the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) announced today.

Global deaths due to measles fell by 48%, from 871 000 in 1999 to an estimated 454 000 in 2004, thanks to major national immunization activities and better access to routine childhood immunization, the agencies said. These measles mortality data, calculated by WHO, are the latest available.

The largest reduction occurred in sub-Saharan Africa, the region with the highest burden of the disease, where estimated measles cases and deaths dropped by 60%.

"This is an outstanding public health success story,” said Dr LEE Jong-wook, WHO Director-General. “If progress continues at this rate, the global goal to cut measles deaths by half will have been achieved on time.”

Measles is one of the most contagious diseases known. Although a safe, effective and inexpensive vaccine has been available since the 1960s, an estimated 410 000 children under age five died from measles in 2004, often from complications related to severe diarrhoea and pneumonia. Many who survive are left with lifelong disabilities including blindness and brain damage. Weak immunization systems that are unable to deliver measles vaccine to young children remain the primary reason for countries still experiencing high measles deaths.

"Measles remains a major killer of children in the developing world, but it doesn't have to be," UNICEF Executive Director Ann M. Veneman said. "Just two doses of an inexpensive, safe, and available measles vaccine can prevent most, if not all, measles deaths."

WHO and UNICEF have concentrated measles mortality reduction activities in 47 countries that account for about 98% of global measles deaths, working primarily to improve routine immunization as well as providing treatment to children with measles and strengthening disease surveillance. Supplementary immunization activities (SIAs) have also proven to be especially effective: from 1999 to 2004, nearly 500 million children were immunized against measles.

While African countries have made great improvements in reducing measles deaths, progress in the South Asia region has been slow. The challenge now is to increase measles immunization coverage in the region to at least 90%. And, it must be ensured that all children receive a first dose of measles vaccine at nine months of age through routine immunization services and a second dose either through routine services or SIAs.

A key factor contributing to progress in reducing measles deaths has been the strong support of the Measles Initiative. Since 2001, the Initiative has supported vaccination efforts in over 40 African countries and raised more than US $150 million with help from partners such as the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization. The Initiative is expanding its technical and financial support to South Asian countries, where total measles deaths are highest outside sub-Saharan Africa. It will also continue the successful child health campaigns in which health workers provide not only measles vaccine but also polio vaccine, insecticide-treated nets for malaria prevention, vitamin A and de-worming tablets.

The Measles Initiative

Launched in 2001, the Measles Initiative is a partnership formed to reduce and control measles deaths. The Initiative is spearheaded by the American Red Cross, the United Nations Foundation, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention of the United States Department of Health and Human Services, UNICEF and WHO.

Other key partners include the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Vodafone Group Foundation, Canadian International Development Agency, Japanese International Agency for Cooperation, Department for International Development of the United Kingdom, Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

Related links

For more information contact:

Hayatee Hasan
WHO, Geneva
Telephone: +41 22 791 2103
E-mail: hasanh@who.int

Melinda Henry
WHO, Geneva
Telephone: +41 22 791 2535
E-mail: henrym@who.int

Erica Kochi
UNICEF/New York
Telephone: +1 212 326 7785
E-mail: ekochi@unicef.org

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