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Measles: From Washington to Lagos via Berlin – no passport required

By 27 April 2015No Comments

Measles moves fast. The highly contagious virus can strike anywhere at any time, be it in Nigerian refugee camps or California’s Disneyland. Measles does not distinguish between rich and poor; instead, it seeks out the vulnerable – like infants below the minimum vaccination age, or those who skipped routine vaccinations.

The recent measles outbreak in Berlin illustrates this perfectly: Measles quickly started spreading around the German capital in October 2014, claiming 1000 cases in six months. A large immunisation gap equalling about 10% of the German population was at the root of the problem. Substantial segments of the German population are not vaccinated against measles because they slipped through the system or consciously chose not to be vaccinated. The recent death of a toddler has now sparked a lively debate in German media about whether the measles vaccine should be mandatory.

This raucous media debate is now clouding a very clear reality: vaccines are safe, affordable, and effective tools that are saving lives, not only in Europe, but in the world’s poorest countries. In countries like Bangladesh, Benin, and Brazil parents value immunisations because they have seen too many loved ones die from preventable diseases like measles.

Yet while a cheap measles vaccine is readily available in Europe for those who want it, that isn’t always the case in much of the world.

In 2000, more than 562,000 children died worldwide from measles complications – many of those in the world’s poorest countries. Yet over 13 years, we have made huge progress in the fight against measles, with a 75% drop in deaths from measles recorded between 2000 and 2013.

But there is still much more to do.

In 2013, there were 145,700 measles deaths globally – that is around 400 deaths a day. Filling the current 16% immunisation gap should be our priority in order not to give the virus a chance. This means reaching those people who currently spread the disease by not being vaccinated. Once 95% of the global population has been vaccinated against measles, it’s predicted that the virus will die out just like smallpox!

But to reach this goal, governments must allocate sufficient resources to strengthen health systems and make vaccines readily available, accessible and affordable around the globe.

One way of making this happen is to ensure the work of Gavi, the Vaccines Alliance, is fully funded. Gavi is a public-private global health partnership playing a vital role in filling the immunisation gap. By pooling vaccine demand and jointly negotiating with pharmaceutical companies, Gavi has succeeded in substantially cutting vaccine costs for the world’s poorest countries. Countries such as Rwanda can therefore afford to carry out nationwide measles campaigns, and reach coverage rates of 95%.

With Gavi support, it’s estimated that a total of 700 million children will be vaccinated against measles in countries such as Ghana, Bangladesh, and Senegal by 2020.

The European Commission recently committed €200 million to Gavi for 2016-2020, raising its pledge by 293% compared to 2011-2015, therefore marking its determination to be part of the effort of making vaccines readily available for all.

However, substantial hurdles remain: remote areas frequently cannot be reached due to an absence of health care services or infrastructural constraints. Existing vaccines are often not adapted to extreme climatic conditions and thus perish along the way. Investing in research and development, along with the strengthening of health and community systems, will therefore be key to closing the immunization gap. The European Commission has the capacity to target these sectors through its development aid and research policies.

The world is increasingly interconnected and we cannot close our eyes to outbreaks in other parts of the world. After Typhoon Haiyan, American travellers unwittingly brought measles from the Philippines to the US. This later resulted in outbreaks all over the United States. To prevent the unnecessary loss of life to measles, international donors and governments must ensure that every child is vaccinated – be it in Disneyland, Berlin or Nigeria.