Global fight to end a childhood killer
Measles is making a comeback. The highly infectious disease has resurfaced in approximately 30 African countries since mid-2009, resulting in more than one thousand deaths. At a global health meeting in Geneva last week, countries endorsed a series of targets which hopefully will lead to the eradication of the childhood killer. UN Radio’s Jocelyne Sambira asked Dr. Peter Strebel at the World Health Organization why measles is resurfacing.
STREBEL: Well, what we’ve seen in the last two years has been a decrease actually in the political and financial commitment to fight measles. Between 2000 and 2008, estimated numbers of measles deaths have declined by nearly three-quarters globally and this has led to parents, grandparents, health workers and in fact governments, not seeing measles as such a severe threat as they used to.
SAMBIRA: If we look at the countries where there is the highest burden of measles, could there be other factors involved apart from weakness in delivery?
STREBEL: If you look let’s say in the African continent, the countries with the highest number of cases and deaths firstly would be Nigeria, Chad, Zimbabwe, and all three of those I think the parts of the country where you are seeing outbreaks are in underserved areas where children are just not getting vaccinated. So this is consistent with the problem of weak underlying immunization systems, not just for measles but for other vaccine-preventable diseases. There are other countries though in southern Africa like South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, for example, that have also seen a resurgence of measles. And here the reasons are a little different in the sense that these countries have had very good performing programmes and have had very low measles incidents since they started measles elimination efforts in the late 1990s. And so they have really had a long period with very little measles and have built up susceptible persons across a wider age group, not just young unvaccinated children, but some adolescents and even young adults.
SAMBIRA: And will we ever be able to talk about eradicating measles?
STREBEL: Yes, we believe eradication is feasible in the medium term or even medium-to-long term. For example, the whole of the western hemisphere, all the countries in the Americas, have stopped local or endemic transmission of measles since 2002, so we know this can be done in a big geographic area. The underlying requirement is very high vaccination coverage sustained over a long period of time. So if this can be achieved in other parts of the world it’s possible to eradicate measles because there is no reservoir for the virus outside of humans. So if we can vaccinate over 95 per cent of all children across the world we can stop measles spreading forever.
PRES: Dr. Peter Strebel (Stree-bull), Focal Point for Global Measles Control at the World Health Organization,