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Worldwide measles deaths drop dramatically

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The greatest reductions in measles deaths occurred in Africa, where deaths dropped 89 percent, and the Eastern Mediterranean, where deaths dropped 90 percent, according to the report. © istockphoto.com/Jaimie Duplass The greatest reductions in measles deaths occurred in Africa, where deaths dropped 89 percent, and the Eastern Mediterranean, where deaths dropped 90 percent, according to the report. © istockphoto.com/Jaimie Duplass

By Steven Reinberg, HealthDay Reporter

THURSDAY, Dec. 4 (HealthDay News) -- Worldwide deaths from measles plummeted 74 percent between 2000 and 2007, according to a new report, and experts say the trend is clear evidence that an international campaign to increase measles vaccination rates is working.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report, the number of deaths fell from 750,000 to 197,000. Moreover, measles deaths in the Eastern Mediterranean region, which includes countries such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia and Sudan, dropped by 90 percent, from 96,000 to 10,000 deaths, beating by three years the United Nations' goal of cutting measles deaths in that area 90 percent by 2010.

"The progress made today is a major contribution to achieving the United Nations Millennium Development target of reducing child mortality by two-thirds by 2015," Dr. Peter Strebel, of the World Health Organization's Department of Immunization, Vaccines, and Biologicals, said during a morning teleconference Thursday.

For the first time, measles vaccinations around the world reached 82 percent in 2007, up from 72 percent in 2000, Strebel said. "And we are reaching more children with measles vaccine through routine vaccination services," he added.

This success is a result of the Measles Initiative, the experts said. Started in 2001, the initiative is a collaborative effort by the World Health Organization, the CDC, the American Red Cross, the United Nations Foundation and UNICEF.

The new findings are published in the Dec. 5 issue of the CDC's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

Despite this success, Strebel thinks efforts to eradicate measles need to be stepped up, or else the gains could be lost.

Ann M. Veneman, executive director of UNICEF, said during the teleconference that child deaths for those under age 5 around the world have dropped to 9.2 million.

"That's unacceptable, but an improvement and a 60 percent reduction in the rate of child mortality since 1960," Veneman said. "The success of the Measles Initiative shows the result of government commitment to children and the benefit of providing community-based integrated health programs."

The greatest reductions in measles deaths occurred in Africa, where deaths dropped 89 percent, and the Eastern Mediterranean, where deaths dropped 90 percent, according to the report.

But more needs to be done, Veneman said. "It is estimated that 500 children a day die of measles. This is an unacceptable reality when there is a safe and effective and inexpensive vaccine to prevent the disease," she said.

Of the 197,000 measles deaths in 2007, an estimated 90 percent were children who died before their 5th birthday, Veneman said. "In 2007, 67 percent of the measles deaths were in one country -- India," she noted.

The Measles Initiative is working with the Indian government to make sure all children are getting two doses of measles vaccine, Veneman said. India was the last country to adopt the two-dose strategy, she explained.

From 2000 to 2007, approximately 11 million measles deaths throughout the world were prevented due to measles control activities. Increased vaccinations alone prevented 3.6 million deaths, according to the report.

To continue making progress against measles, the CDC identified six areas of concern. First, vaccine programs need to be developed in India. Second, vaccine systems need to improve to ensure that more than 90 percent of children get their first shot on time. Third, there needs to be follow-up to ensure the second shot is given. Fourth, there needs to be better surveillance of suspected cases of measles. Fifth, there needs to be better management of measles cases. And sixth, more money is needed to keep measles programs going.

"The gains made in fighting measles and other diseases must provide momentum and a sense of urgency to accelerate progress and save the lives of more and more children," Veneman said.

Measles has been on the rise in the United States, reaching the highest level in more than a decade. While measles deaths in the United States are rare, this year there have been about 130 reported cases of the disease. Almost half of these cases were among children whose parents declined vaccinations.

More information

For more on measles, visit the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

SOURCES: Dec. 4, 2008, teleconference with Peter Strebel, Department of Immunization, Vaccines, and Biologicals, World Health Organization, Geneva, Switzerland; Ann M. Veneman, executive director, UNICEF; Dec. 5, 2008, Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report

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