WHO: Measles Deaths Are Declining Globally

In the U.S., 2011 was the worst measles year in 15 years, but worldwide, deaths from the disease have plummeted over the past 10 years.

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Last week, we reported that 2011 was the worst measles year in the U.S. in 15 years. But while measles is still a present risk and traveling Americans are contracting it increasingly, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced on Tuesday that worldwide, measles deaths have actually dropped about three-quarters over the past decade.

In a study published in the Lancet, the WHO reported that due to major vaccination initiatives, an estimated 9.6 million children were saved from measles between 2000 to 2010. Vaccines reduced outbreak deaths by 74% over that period, with the number of deaths falling from about 535,300 to 139,300.

The majority of measles deaths occurred in India and Africa where not enough children are being vaccinated. India accounted for 47% of all measles deaths, followed by the entire African region at 36%.

(MORE: Measles: 2011 Was the Worst in the U.S. in 15 Years)

In 2001, the WHO set a goal to cut measles by 90% by 2010. Although the death rate from measles declined dramatically, it fell short of the health agency’s goal.

“This is still a huge success,” study author Peter Strebel, a measles expert at WHO, told the AP. Strebel said the 85% vaccination coverage rate is the highest ever recorded. “You don’t reduce measles deaths by three-quarters without significantly accelerating efforts,” he said.

However, the researchers had sufficient data for only 65 countries and had to estimate the figures for 128 others using modeling, the AP reported.

(MORE: Measles Exposure Follows an Unvaccinated Passenger’s Flight Pattern)

The WHO is now launching a new strategic plan to continue cutting deaths due to measles and rubella. Measles and rubella vaccines are commonly combined in a single shot. The goal is to reduce global measles deaths by at least 95% by 2015 and to achieve measles and rubella elimination in at least five WHO regions by 2020.

“Recent measles outbreaks have affected children in the world unevenly, with the poorest and youngest children the most at risk of death or disability,” said UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake in a statement. “This new Strategic Plan stresses that measles and rubella vaccinations must be delivered to children deep in the poorest and hardest to reach communities.”

The agency plans to increase monitoring and vaccinating strategies and to encourage 62 countries currently not using the rubella vaccine to use their measles vaccination delivery system to provide the immunization, so that people can protect themselves from both diseases.

(MORE: Vaccines: They’re Not Just for Kids (But Too Few U.S. Adults Are Getting Immunized))

Some experts believe the WHO’s goal to eradicate measles or rubella may be overreaching, and suggest that aiming to reduce disease and death rates is more realistic. In recent years, measles has rebounded in Europe and elsewhere. Daniel Berman, a vaccines expert at Medecins Sans Frontieres, told the AP that a massive increase in measles in Africa occurred in the last two years due to lapses from vaccine campaigns and declining funds. “The challenge is to find ways to make measles campaigns happen in countries with weak systems,” he told the AP, noting that it will be hard to improve on the 74% drop in the death rate and that it will most likely plateau.