NEW YORK // UN health chiefs are celebrating a 93 per cent reduction in deaths over the past eight years from measles across much of the Middle East, where an intensive vaccination programme has surpassed its goal two years ahead of target. The number of measles deaths has dropped from an estimated 101,000 in 2000 to 7,000 last year across a 22-nation bloc spanning from Morocco to Pakistan, called the Eastern Mediterranean, according to the latest figures from the World Health Organisation (WHO).
Although this reduction in deaths beats a UN goal of reducing measles mortality by 90 per cent by 2010, WHO's medical officer Peter Strebel urges the region's health ministers to remain vigilant against the virulent respiratory infection. "The main point is congratulations on the success that has been achieved in some pretty tough settings - such as Somalia, which has undertaken, in a phased way, a campaign over the last couple of years," said Mr Strebel.
"However, a word of caution: measles is one of the most highly infectious human viruses and you cannot rest on your laurels. When vaccination coverage drops and children miss getting shots then you set yourself up for the next outbreak." Despite gains made, experts point to outbreaks in Saudi Arabia and Egypt between 2006 and 2007, where 4,215 and 2,315 cases were reported respectively, as examples of how quickly measles can erupt when too few children have been vaccinated.
The real difficulty areas are countries suffering from violence and instability, such as Afghanistan, Lebanon, Pakistan, Somalia and Sudan. "The problems are in countries that have civil unrest, because that means immunisation staff cannot reach certain populations," Mr Strebel said. "Unfortunately the eastern Mediterranean has a number of countries that are struggling with civil unrest and warlike situations."
The WHO announced on Thursday that measles deaths worldwide fell by 78 per cent between 2000 and 2008, from an estimated 733,000 in 2000 to 164,000 last year, with nearly 700 million children vaccinated against the disease. "So much has been achieved in the past several years thanks to the hard work and commitment of national governments and donors. But with only two years until the target date, there are signs of stalling momentum," said Dr Margaret Chan, the WHO director general.
Health experts warn that countries in this region are among those that planned major vaccination programmes over the next two years that could be affected by a US$59 million (Dh216.7m) shortfall in the global anti-measles budget. "We are poised to vaccinate more children than ever in 2010," said Kathy Calvin, the chief executive officer of the UN Foundation. "Next year, some of the most populous countries: China, Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Nigeria, and Ethiopia are planning national immunisation campaigns. We're looking at a pivotal year for measles vaccination and the financial commitments haven't kept up with the demand."