Thanks to an unprecedented partnership involving the Red Cross and Red Crescent, global measles deaths have fallen by 39 per cent since 1999, while the region with the highest burden of the disease, Africa, has witnessed a drop of 46 per cent.
“These are historic figures. Never before, since statistics were first compiled, have there been so few measles deaths in Africa,” says Jean Roy, senior health officer at the International Federation.
“This demonstrates that when various partners come together at a global, national and local level, each bringing its own competencies, we can make an enormous difference to the lives of vulnerable people everywhere. The elimination of measles in the developing world is within reach – and this will be a vital step towards the Millennium Development Goal of halving child mortality by 2015,” he adds.
Measles is an important cause of childhood deaths. Only a decade ago, measles killed millions of children each year and affected 30 million more, leaving many with life-long disabilities like blindness and brain damage. Since 1999, global measles deaths have plummeted from 873,000 in 1999 to an estimated 530,000 in 2003. An estimated 200,000 children’s lives have been saved in Africa every year.
“Five years ago, an African child died every minute from measles, a disease that has had a vaccine for more than 40 years. 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,” said Dr. Mark Grabowsky, American Red Cross senior technical advisor. “Our success in reducing measles deaths shows the power of a commitment to save lives and reach each at-risk child.”
Launched in February 2001, the Measles Initiative has so far vaccinated 160 million children in Africa. A further 51 million children under the age of 5 in 13 countries will be vaccinated in 2005.
Key partners of the initiative include the American Red Cross, United Nations Foundation, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the World Health Organization (WHO) and the International Federation, which supports the national Red Cross or Red Crescent Societies in the country in which a campaign occurs, as well as coordinating the activities of donor national societies.
Jean Roy says the Red Cross Red Crescent is a crucial component in the success of the partnership: “Where the WHO and UNICEF have the technical know-how, the logistical set-up and the policies underpinning the campaigns, we in the Red Cross Red Crescent bring a great deal to the table – from fundraising to our ability to advocate on the international, national and local level.”
“But most importantly we have the network of community-based volunteers who can access poor, isolated communities and ensure high vaccination coverage. Without the social mobilization that the Red Cross volunteers carry out at grassroots level, we would not have witnessed such a dramatic fall in measles mortality,” Roy says.
The drop in measles cases has an impact on the treatment of other diseases, since hospital wards devoted to measles patients become available to children suffering from other diseases. Within a few weeks of a campaign, hospital capacity for other diseases increases by up to 15 per cent, due to the decrease in measles cases.
The success of the measles campaigns has had an impact on other diseases in Africa, especially malaria. In 2002, the American Red Cross and International Federation advocated for integrated campaigns which incorporated other life-saving health interventions to be added to what is a major logistical undertaking.
And so, after two pilot projects in Ghana and Zambia, the Measles partnership launched an unprecedented health initiative in Togo in December 2004, in which around one million insecticide-treated bed nets (ITNs) to combat malaria were distributed during a measles and polio vaccination campaign. Children under the age of five in the West Africa country were protected from three killer diseases.
Such has been the success of this approach that four of the measles campaigns to be carried out this year will also include the distribution of ITNs
And the International Federation is thinking about where further attention is needed to combat measles. Jean Roy says the Red Cross and Red Crescent will join other partners in stepping up its immunisation activities in countries in Asia affected by the tsunami, using the Africa Measles Initiative as a model.
“There are an estimated 200,000 measles deaths occurring every year in the countries of South-East Asia. The routine vaccination services are not enough to achieve a high level of control, so supplementary immunization activities are clearly required,” he explains.