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Global Vaccination Campaign Targets Measles, Rubella
April 26, 2012

By Charlene Porter
IIP Staff Writer
April 25, 2012

Woman carrying two children
This mother and children head home after a visit to a village health clinic in Madagascar where measles vaccinations are done twice a year.

Vaccination against measles works, and when vaccination programs falter, the disease will resurge. Those are the key findings of research described in the April 24 edition of the medical journal the Lancet. The findings also point global health donors toward promoting a new immunization campaign.

“A three-quarters drop in measles deaths worldwide shows just how effective well-run vaccination programs can be,” said World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Margaret Chan in a news release issued by health partners. “Now we need to take the next logical step and vaccinate children against rubella too.”

International partners of the Measles Initiative have immunized 1 billion children since 2001, and the partnership is now extending its effort to the related condition of rubella. Measles is among the most infectious of known diseases, and a notable cause of death for children in the developing world. Rubella is generally a mild illness, except when it infects pregnant women. Miscarriages, stillbirths and birth defects can result if a new mother is infected with rubella in the first trimester.

WHO, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), UNICEF, the American Red Cross and the U.N. Foundation will pursue the Global Measles and Rubella Strategic Plan against these infectious diseases, aiming to reduce 535,000 global measles deaths in 2000 by 95 percent in 2015.

Data on the effectiveness of vaccination programs conducted in the last decade show it can be done. In 2000, measles took 535,000 lives; by 2010 the death toll fell below 140,000, a 74 percent decrease in global mortality. Sub-Saharan Africa made the most progress with an 85 percent drop in measles deaths according to the Lancet research.

The data also show that investment and political commitment for measles control weakened in 2008 and 2009 when the global economy was in a tailspin. Immunization programs faltered, and many children went unvaccinated. The disease returned with large outbreaks in Africa, Asia, Eastern Mediterranean and Europe.

“Recent measles outbreaks have affected children in the world unevenly, with the poorest and youngest children the most at risk of death of disability,” said UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake. “This new strategic plan stresses that measles and rubella vaccination must be delivered to children deep in the poorest and hardest to reach communities.”

The plan sets five goals: high vaccination coverage, intense disease surveillance, outbreak preparedness and response, community engagement and research.

“Measles continues to kill children around the world and rubella is the leading infectious cause of congenital malformations in newborn infants; these are avoidable tragedies,” said CDC Director Thomas Frieden. “This new plan outlines strategies we know work.”

The American Red Cross will bring an international network of volunteers to the campaign, according to the joint press release. The volunteers will go door-to-door in their communities explaining to parents the importance of keeping their children up to date on all vaccinations.

The Global Alliance on Vaccine and Immunization — the GAVI Alliance — has been a major donor supporting immunization programs since 2000, and will be making a $605 million investment for measles vaccination.

The release of the new measles mortality data and the strategic plan coincides with WHO’s World Immunization Week. An estimated 2 million to 3 million lives are saved each year as a result of immunization, WHO reports.