Global effort prompts huge drop in measles deaths

By Will Dunham

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Measles deaths have plummeted by 74 percent globally this decade thanks to a concerted effort to vaccinate children in Africa and other hard-hit regions, health officials said on Thursday.

Measles deaths worldwide fell from an estimated 750,000 in 2000 — the year before the vaccination effort began — to 197,000 in 2007, the U.N. World Health Organization and other partners in the effort reported.

In Africa, where measles had claimed its biggest toll, deaths fell by an astonishing 89 percent, from an estimated 395,000 in 2000 to 45,000 last year, officials said.

About 90 percent of the worldwide measles deaths claimed children under age 5, officials said.

More than 600 million children in more than 60 countries have been vaccinated against measles since 2001 under the program launched by the American Red Cross, the U.S. government’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the United Nations Foundation, UNICEF and the WHO, officials said.

The vaccination efforts, which cost more than $600 million, saved about 3.6 million lives, officials said.

“We’re incredibly encouraged by this level of success. We know what countries can achieve. But as deaths decrease, people often tend to move on to other things thinking the problem is solved, which it is not,” United Nations Foundation children’s health official Andrea Gay said in a telephone interview.

Measles, a highly infectious viral disease that is easily spread from person to person through coughing and sneezing, has killed untold millions of people since antiquity. It has remained a leading cause of death among young children, primarily in poor nations, despite the availability of a safe and effective vaccine since 1963.

Experts say children should get two doses. In most places, the first is given at about 9 months old and the second at around 18 to 24 months old, Gay said. Most non-immunized children contract measles if exposed to the virus.

But while these are considered routine vaccinations for children in wealthy countries, millions were not getting them in sub-Saharan Africa and other poor regions of the world.

Measles deaths usually are caused by complications rather than the respiratory disease itself. Pneumonia is the most common cause of death associated with it. Other complications include severe diarrhea, ear infections and encephalitis.

A global goal set by the WHO is a 90 percent reduction in worldwide measles deaths by 2010 compared to 2000.

Worldwide, the number of reported measles cases fell from 852,937 in 2000 to 279,006 in 2007 — a 67 percent decrease.

The bulk of measles deaths are no longer in Africa thanks to the vaccination efforts, shifting instead to a region in Asia including India, officials said.

They said 8.5 million children in India — more than in any other country — were not given their first dose of measles vaccine by their first birthday.  Continued…

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