Measles, one of the leading causes of death in young children, is making a comeback in Africa. More than 1,100 measles-related deaths have been reported among 64,000 known cases over the last year, threatening to undo significant progress made there in fighting the viral disease over the last two decades.
The largest outbreaks have been seen in Zimbabwe, Burundi, Chad and Nigeria, but 30 African nations in all are reporting a spike in the number of cases. The highly contagious virus is spread by coughing, sneezing or close personal contact. If untreated, its complications include blindness, encephalitis, pneumonia, diarrhea and severe dehydration. At the highest risk are unvaccinated children, a preventable tragedy since at roughly one dollar a dose, preventing the disease is relatively inexpensive.
Health ministers from the World Health Organization's 193 member-nations raised the alarm over the measles outbreak at their annual meeting recently in Switzerland. Greater attention to other health crises such as HIV AIDS and malaria in some African nations and strained finances in others may be contributing to the situation. Reluctance by the members of some religious groups to have their children vaccinated could also be a factor. What is known, however, is that given how contagious the disease can be, a drop in vaccinations is quickly followed by a rise in infections.
The United States is committed to doing its part in combating the measles. Besides supporting health programs with many individual nations, the US has teamed with the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for refugees to significantly increase the measles vaccination coverage of children less than five years of age in 15 target countries by 2012. Strong national and international attention is required, however, to save lives and reduce human suffering caused by this preventable disease.