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Global leaders intensify commitment to prevent leading childhood killer - measles

Measles strategy works – Now it must expand to more countries

Cape Town Measles Declaration pledges to cut measles deaths by half

Photograph of child

By 2005, almost half a million children will be saved every year if there are expanded efforts to immunize and protect all children against measles, international health experts declared today.

At a landmark World Health Organization (WHO)/United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) meeting in Cape Town, leading players in the fight against measles spelled out what it will take to stop 2000 children dying every day from this preventable disease. Together with UNICEF special ambassador Angelique Kidjo, they issued a call for intensified efforts and the resources necessary to ensure all children are protected against measles.

“We can do it – we’ve done it before – in Afghanistan, Angola, in countries devastated by conflict and drought and every other form of disaster,” said Carol Bellamy, Executive Director, UNICEF. “In just three years, and against great odds, we’ve cut the number of children dying from measles by almost 25%. It’s one of the most dramatic declines in disease mortality in history. But the next 25% will be harder. With the political and financial support of donors and governments around the world, we can together save many more lives.”

The “Cape Town Measles Declaration” calls on governments to take strong action against one of the world’s most vicious and prolific vaccine-preventable childhood killers – a disease which kills 745,000 children every year. We must control this disease to meet the Millennium Development targets of a 67% reduction in under-five mortality by 2015. The world leaders are well aware of the urgency. Last year, the UN General Assembly Special Session on Children set a 2005 target date to reduce measles deaths from 1999 levels by 50%. This year, the World Health Assembly, which includes 192 member states, endorsed the WHO and UNICEF measles strategy to combat the disease.

“When 30 million children are affected and 745,000 children die every year, you have to think big,” said Dr. LEE Jong-wook, Director-General of WHO. “Since the launch of the WHO-UNICEF strategy to reduce measles deaths in 2000, we have delivered measles vaccine to more than 200 million children globally. We know the strategy works. An additional half a million children are alive today because of all the partners’ efforts. But if we’re to prevent more deaths, we must do more. And we’ll need help from governments and from the international community.”

The campaign against measles has been dramatic – hundreds of thousands of children saved, the virus almost banished from the Americas and transmission cut drastically in many African countries, where the Measles Initiative Partnership has been the driving force behind the campaign. WHO and UNICEF have identified 45 countries as the highest priority for mortality-reduction strategies, accounting for 95% of global deaths from measles.

“It has been astonishing to see the results of the immunization programme in Africa,“ said Dr Mark Grabowsky, Senior Technical Officer, American Red Cross. “Now we have proof that we can reduce measles mortality even in countries torn apart by conflict, if governments are committed, communities are engaged and we have the support of donors, NGOs and volunteers. What we have accomplished so far through the Measles Initiative Partnership gives great hope for the future, and the many thousands of children we can still save.” The foundation of the measles mortality-reduction strategy is the re-invigoration of national immunization systems. At the Cape Town meeting, delegates discussed strategies with governments and policy makers for strengthening routine immunization services and making the life-saving measles vaccine available to all children as a matter of course.

”It’s not just about reducing childhood deaths today. We need to be in this for the long haul and this means a sustainable reduction in childhood deaths, which only a strong national health system can guarantee,” said Dr Stephen L. Cochi, Deputy Director, National Immunization Program, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). ”This kind of international focus and commitment gives us the opportunity to build that strength – boosting safe routine immunization services, establishing international laboratory networks and increasing surveillance to detect and respond to outbreaks.”

“Today the call to action is clear,” said Mr Nick Farrell, Senior Programme Officer, International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. “ We have to ensure every child receives a second opportunity for measles immunization in these 45 countries, no matter how remote or marginalized, regardless of barriers of conflict, culture and poverty.

“To date we have seen tens of thousands of health workers and volunteers trek across mountains and deserts in all kinds of conditions to find these children to ensure they receive the life-saving vaccine,” said Timothy E. Wirth, President of the United Nations Foundation. “We are witnessing incredible commitment from ordinary people. They need – they deserve to be backed up by the world’s political will and financial support.”

Ms Angelique Kidjo, Special UNICEF ambassador, believes that the Cape Town Measles Declaration indicates a clear path towards a giant achievement in children’s health.

”The world has committed, to drastically reducing the devastating, pointless waste of young life,” she said. “If we reach our targets for measles, we will have taken a huge step towards keeping that promise. I believe we can get there – but only if we make it a priority to turn this declaration into action. This goal deserves all we can give. We must do whatever is necessary.”

Further information:

  • Of all the vaccine-preventable diseases, measles remains the leading childhood killer. Measles is an important cause of overall under 5 childhood mortality.
  • Measles affects over 30 million children. More than 745,000 die each year from measles – more than half of them in Africa.
  • A safe, effective and inexpensive measles vaccine has been available for over 40 years.
  • Measles accounts for an estimated 50% of vaccine-preventable deaths among children.
  • One million measles deaths are already being prevented each year with existing immunization efforts. With the successful implementation of the WHO-UNICEF measles strategy (including routine immunization and periodic supplementary immunization activities), an additional 500,000 measles deaths can be prevented each year.
  • Measles is a highly contagious vaccine-preventable disease caused by the measles virus. It is one of the most readily transmitted communicable diseases and probably the best known and most deadly of all childhood illnesses. Measles causes a high fever, rash, cough and can kill. It affects mostly children, but also young adults. Children usually do not die directly of measles, but from its complications such as pneumonia and diarrhea which attack their weakened immune systems.
  • It costs less than a dollar to immunize a child against measles.
  • A critical goal is to reduce measles mortality by 50% by 2005 (compared to 875,000 deaths in 1999).
  • The WHO-UNICEF strategy to reduce measles deaths includes: achieving and maintaining high routine measles immunization coverage – ‘the first opportunity’ to infants; Providing a ‘second opportunity’ for measles immunization for all children through periodic supplementary immunization campaigns; Ensuring high quality measles surveillance is in place to detect and respond to outbreaks; and improving management of complicated cases.
  • Collaborating partners include: WHO, UNICEF, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the United Nations Foundation, humanitarian and non-governmental organizations, including the American Red Cross and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, governments of countries affected by measles, development banks, donor governments (e.g. Canada, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States of America).
  • The importance of developing long term immunization planning cannot be underestimated. This includes ensuring measles activities are fully integrated with other national health goals, establishing high quality surveillance, mobilizing necessary human and financial resources and planning for financial sustainability of measles mortality reduction activities.

For further information, please contact :Melissa Corkum, Information Officer, WHO headquarters, Phone: 41-22-791-765, mobile: 41-79-500-6554,; Mohammed Jalloh, International Communication Officer, UNICEF, Phone: 212-326-7516, mobile (1-646-207-5179), Email:; Laura Rogers, Director of Communications, United Nations Foundation, Phone: 202-887-9040,; Julie Irby, Associate, International Communication, American Red Cross, Phone: 202-303-4264, mobile: 202-439-0722 Email:; Roy Probert, Press officer, International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, Phone: 41-22-730-4296, mobile: 41-79-217-3386,; Steven Stewart, Health Communications, CDC, Phone: 404-639-8327, mobile 678-644-6204