Measles deaths drop by 78 percent but resurgence feared

LONDON -- Global deaths from measles fell by 78 percent between 2000 and 2008 thanks largely to mass childhood vaccination campaigns, but experts say death rates may rise again if complacency allows immunization efforts to lag.

About 164,000 died from measles in 2008 down from 733,000 in 2000, according to the U.S.-based Measles Initiative, which groups several organizations including the United Nations children's fund and the World Health Organization.

Vaccinating nearly 700 million children against measles with large-scale immunization programs and increased routine vaccinations has prevented an estimated 4.3 million measles deaths in less than a decade, the group said.

Measles, the world's leading cause of death in children, is a contagious respiratory illness spread through coughing and sneezing.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the WHO worked with poor countries to increase the use of a two-dose vaccine that costs about $1 to administer. But the initiative said Southeast Asia, which it said includes India, Indonesia and Bangladesh, lagged behind the global trend, with measles deaths falling only 46 percent between 2000 and 2008.

India, which wasn't a part of the collaboration, now accounts for about 75 percent of worldwide deaths from the virus.

"Three out of four children who died from measles in 2008 were in India," UNICEF's executive director Ann Veneman said in a statement. She added that India's plan to scale up its measles vaccination campaign was "encouraging."

The Measles Initiative warned it faced a funding gap of $59 million for 2010, which could allow a resurgence in measles deaths. "The combined effect of decreased political and financial commitment could result in an estimated 1.7 million measles-related deaths between 2010-13," the initiative said.

"Today's news shows the power of vaccination," Thomas Frieden, director of the CDC, said in a conference call Dec. 3.

However, he warned measles could make a rapid comeback: "We saw this in the United States between 1989 and 1991, when an estimated 55,000 measles cases and more than 130 deaths occurred."

Parents' refusal to have their children vaccinated because of fears of links to autism caused a rise in measles cases in the United States and parts of Europe in recent years.

Many studies have debunked the notion vaccines can cause autism but data released in February for England and Wales showed a rise in measles cases of more than 70 percent in 2008 from the previous year, mostly because of unvaccinated children.

The Measles Initiative said all regions of the world except southeast Asia had hit the United Nations goal of reducing measles deaths by 90 percent from 2000 to 2010 two years ahead of target, but warned against complacency.

"This is a highly contagious disease that can quickly take advantage of any lapse in effort," said WHO director general Margaret Chan.

Measles symptoms include rash, high fever, cough, runny nose and reddened, watery eyes. Some people also develop an ear infection, diarrhea, lung infection or brain inflammation. The disease kills as few as 1 in 1,000 children who are infected in developed countries and 15 percent or more of infected children in regions with malnutrition, the CDC's Frieden said.