Initiative to combat measles in Africa launched

Published: 7 February 2002 0:00 CET

Joe Lowry in Washington

"This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end, but it is perhaps the end of the beginning". Recalling Winston Churchill's famous words, the Chairman of the Board of Governors of the American Red Cross David McLaughlin, officially launched, a resource for the public and all organisations involved in a global partnership to control measles deaths in Africa.

The launch came during a two-day meeting of all partners of the Measles Initiative, hosted by the American Red Cross in Washington which also brought together leading experts on measles including Sam Katz, who invented the vaccine in 1963. The initiative is a long term commitment to control measles mortality rates, focusing initially on Africa through the vaccination of 200 million children in up to 36 sub-Saharan countries by 2005. This would mean preventing 1.2 million deaths and virtually eliminating a disease that currently kills 445,000 African children every year, or one every minute of the day. Countless thousands more are left blind or disabled.

Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies are key participants in the fight against the disease. During the meeting this week, the role of Red Cross Red Crescent volunteers in measles vaccination campaigns in Africa was highlighted time after time. All partners of the Measles Initiative, Centers For Disease Control (CDC), UNICEF, UN Foundation, World Health Organisation (WHO), American Red Cross and others, paid tribute to the dedication of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, in a programme that has already seen spectacular success since it began in 2001.

Harold Decker, interim President of American Red Cross, reported that in the year since the coalition has been active, more than 21 million children in eight African countries had been vaccinated. Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies were responsible for mobilizing about 5 million of them to ensure they, and their families, understood the need for vaccination.

"More than 140,000 deaths have been prevented," he noted. "That's 140,000 human lives, at a cost of less than US$ 1 per child. This is not an achievement to rest on. It's a foundation to build on," he added.

Uganda has been one of the many Red Cross success stories in the first year of the campaign, and Rose Kinuka, Social Mobilisation Director of the Ugandan Red Cross was in Washington to tell the partnership how crucial the role of volunteers has been.

In one region of Uganda a local radio station gave out false information on the dangers of immunisation, which threatened the entire vaccination effort.

"People believed what they were hearing, and it was only when the Red Cross volunteers went and spoke face to face with mothers and families that they changed their minds. One mother said 'when the Red Cross came and told us that vaccination was a good thing we knew it was true because we know the Red Cross is there to save the lives of children'," Rose explained.

Districts where Red Cross volunteers were mobilised saw massive vaccination coverage, far higher than in districts where they were not used. Working against out-of-date population statistics, volunteers were able to estimate that the real number of children needing shots was up to twice as high as official data showed. The Ugandan Red Cross conveyed this information to health authorities and extra vaccines, equipment, personnel and disposal facilities were laid on, to ensure every precious life was protected.

Although the meeting in Washington concentrated on Africa, participants also heard from the former Soviet republic of Kyrgyzstan, which has recently stepped up its measles prevention activities in the wake of epidemics in 1993 and 1998. There too, Red Crescent volunteers were at the forefront of the social mobilisation campaign, using everything from posters to pop concerts to spread the immunisation message. The Measles Initiative meeting also decided to explore potential support to reduce measles mortality in countries outside of Africa.

The Red Cross Red Crescent Movement may be a crucial partner, but it cannot take on measles on its own. As Uganda's Rose Kinuka noted "American, African and global partners must continue to work together so that our children don't have to suffer from this disease. Please help us to fight measles in Africa."