Measles deaths plunge in Africa, WHO says
By Maggie Fox, Health and Science Editor
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Measles deaths plunged by 91 percent in Africa between 2000 and 2006, thanks to a concerted effort to vaccinate children, the United Nations said on Thursday.
Deaths from the once-common childhood disease fell from nearly 400,000 a year to 36,000 in 2006, the U.N.'s World Health Organization reported.
"The spectacular gains achieved in Africa helped generate a strong decline in global measles deaths, which fell 68 percent worldwide, from an estimated 757,000 to 242,000 during this period," the U.N. and the American Red Cross said in a joint news release.
"This is a major public health success and a tribute to the commitment of countries in the African region," WHO Director-General Dr. Margaret Chan said in a statement.
"We need to sustain this success and intensify our efforts in other parts of the world, as there are still far too many lives lost to this disease."
Measles, caused by a highly infectious virus, is marked by fever and a characteristic rash. It is virtually unknown now in many developed countries where vaccination is nearly universal.
WHO and other groups have led mass vaccination campaigns around the world. The groups said 478 million children in developing countries were vaccinated between 2000 and 2006.
Officials said Africa has been hardest hit by the infection, in part because poor nutrition makes children far more likely to die of the disease.
"We looked at the part of the world that was heaviest hit -- that was Africa," WHO's Dr. Peter Strebel told reporters in a telephone briefing.
A STRATEGY THAT WORKS
"The clear message from this achievement is that the strategy works," added Dr. Julie Gerberding, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "The next step is to fully implement this strategy in South Asia, where measles disease burden is now the highest in the world."
The team said that the number of reported cases in the Southeast Asia region increased from 78,574 in 2000 to 94,562 in 2006, primarily because doctors are doing a better job of diagnosing the virus in India and Indonesia.
"However, the number of reported cases in the European Region increased from 37,421 in 2000 to 53,344 in 2006, primarily because of large measles outbreaks in Ukraine and Romania," the WHO team reported in the CDC's weekly report on death and disease.
India and Pakistan especially need to vaccinate more children, WHO said.
"Measles is still killing nearly 600 children under five every day, an unacceptable reality when we have a safe, effective, and inexpensive vaccine to prevent the disease," said Ann Veneman, executive director of UNICEF, the U.N. children's agency.
Strebel said it is too soon to try to eradicate measles completely, although it should be possible.
"Measles does have all the biological characteristics of a disease that could be targeted for global eradication," he told reporters. "However at the moment there really is not the political commitment globally to embark on another global eradication effort."
A WHO-led vaccination campaign eradicated smallpox in 1979 and the next target is polio.
(Editing by Stuart Grudgings)