'Making measles history is not mission impossible,' UNICEF declares

More than 400 children are still being killed by measles every day, international health experts say.

Measles can be prevented with two doses of a widely available and inexpensive vaccine

A person is contagious with measles roughly four days before the rash appears until four days after. (U.S. Centres for Disease Control and Prevention)

Measles vaccinations have saved more than 20 million lives since 2000, but more than 400 children are still being killed by the disease every day, international health experts say.

Between 2000 and 2015, there was a 79 per cent decrease in estimated measles deaths. Despite this progress, global milestones of eliminating the highly infectious illness weren't achieved, according to a report released on Thursday by UNICEF, the World Health Organization, the vaccine alliance Gavi and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"Making measles history is not mission impossible," Robin Nandy, UNICEF immunization chief, said in a statement. "We have the tools and the knowledge to do it; what we lack is the political will to reach every single child, no matter how far. Without this commitment, children will continue to die from a disease that is easy and cheap to prevent."

In 2015, about 20 million infants missed their measles shots and an estimated 134,000 children died from the disease. Of these, more than half, 11 million, were in six countries: India, Nigeria, Pakistan, Indonesia, Ethiopia and Congo.

Measles is a highly contagious virus that spreads through direct contact and through the air. It is one of the biggest killers of children worldwide and can also lead to complications such permanent hearing loss and brain damage.

But it can be prevented with two doses of a widely available and inexpensive vaccine.

Eliminating measles will take strong commitments from countries and partners to boost routine immunization coverage and to strengthen surveillance systems, the groups said. 

In 2015, large outbreaks were reported in Egypt, Ethiopia, Germany, Kyrgyzstan and Mongolia. The outbreaks in Germany and Mongolia affected older persons, which the groups said highlights the need to vaccinate adolescents and young adults who have no protection against measles.

Measles cases imported to Canada

The illness also tends to flare up during conflict or humanitarian emergencies that challenge vaccination campaigns. 

Last year, outbreaks were reported in Nigeria, Somalia and South Sudan.

Measles is no longer endemic or regularly found in North and South America, but it can still be imported, said Dr. Allison McGeer, an infectious disease consultant at Toronto's Mount Sinai Hospital.

"For those of us who are in North America and really haven't seen measles for the last 35 years, this is a really important reminder of just how important our vaccination programs are and how much difference they make," said McGeer, who wasn't involved in the report. "That we have this much measles in the world, it's really awful."

In Canada, a combination of high vaccination rates when measles is introduced from elsewhere and a strong public health response help to stop spread, she said.

With files from CBC's Christine Birak


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