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 Wednesday 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."
Preliminary 2004 data, compiled by the World Health Organization, were released here Wednesday at a summit on global health sponsored by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Time magazine and other groups. The data include statistics through the end of 2004 that show measles deaths in sub-Saharan Africa plunging 60 percent from 1999, when they had reached 519,000. The new data confirm a less dramatic trend reported in September in the Lancet, a medical journal, based on 2003 data.
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 question-and-answer session Wednesday.
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. (Melinda Gates is a board member of The Washington Post Co.) But children need two doses of measles vaccine for full protection and often weren't getting two as part of the routine program. That prompted creation of the Measles Initiative, led by the Red Cross with significant funding from Turner's United Nations Foundation and other backers.
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. Advocates said the Measles Initiative had made headway throughout sub-Saharan Africa, with the notable exception of Nigeria, Africa's most populous country, where several types of vaccination campaigns have run into cultural and logistical snags.
Mark Grabowsky, a CDC employee who runs the program for the Red Cross, said the group was planning a new initiative in Nigeria, along with expanded efforts in Asia.
The success has been so noteworthy that Grabowsky and other public-health experts at this week's conference said the moment is approaching when the world might be able to declare an official goal of eradicating measles. That's not likely in the immediate future: Considerable effort is going into eradicating polio, which is proving a stubborn foe, and most health experts don't want to tackle eradication of another disease until that job is accomplished.
"No one is declaring an eradication target yet," Grabowsky said. "We can't do that because everybody's focused on polio eradication."
Smallpox is the only disease that has been eradicated, after a campaign that ended in 1977. Many doctors consider that the greatest achievement in medicine. 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.
awarded a measles vaccination grant.