Measles deaths in African children have plummeted 60 percent in five years thanks to broader vaccination efforts, new data show, and the effort is going so well that some public-health experts believe it may become feasible to eradicate the disease worldwide.
Vaccination campaigns that began in 2000 have saved the lives of just over 1 million children in the part of Africa south of the Sahara desert, according to the World Health Organization, and experts expect that number to hit 1.2 million by the end of this year.
Media mogul Ted Turner, who created a foundation that has played a key role in the efforts, announced a new grant of $20 million to extend the vaccination campaigns. The American Red Cross, one of the leaders in the effort known as the Measles Initiative, said it would broaden the vaccination efforts to include some Asian countries where measles is a lingering problem.
"This is one of the true public-health success stories of modern times," said Stephen B. Blount, global health coordinator at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. "The Measles Initiative has achieved an enormous amount in just the last five years."
Despite the gains, measles still kills more than 400,000 children a year, half of them in Africa. The highly contagious disease -- which spreads by respiratory droplets and causes high fever, a rash and other symptoms -- kills about 5 percent of children who get it in poor countries. A vaccine that costs less than $1 per dose has been available since 1963, and its widespread use has virtually eradicated measles in high- and middle-income countries.
Numerous speakers at this week's conference called for greater efforts to combat such problems. "It's immoral for people to die like flies in countries that are poor of diseases that kill no Americans," former president Bill Clinton said in a recent question-and-answer session.
Routine use of measles and other vaccines has been rising in Africa, thanks to the efforts of a global vaccine alliance funded in large measure by the Gates Foundation.
The effort involves massive campaigns, lasting several days apiece, to give every child in a country a measles shot. Lately, the program has also been distributing sleeping nets that protect children from mosquitoes, which can carry malaria.
A program led by former president Jimmy Carter is on the verge of eradicating Guinea worm disease, a dreadful ailment that primarily afflicts small regions of Africa.
[Excerpted from an article by Justin Gillis, Washington Post]