On Measles Worldwide

May 23, 2011

The World Health Organization reports that in 2008, there were 164,000 measles deaths globally, more that 95 percent of which were in low-income countries with weak health infrastructures. This rate equates to nearly 450 a day or 18 per hour. In recent years, targeted vaccination campaigns have greatly reduced the number of measles deaths each year, though in developing nations with weak health infrastructures complications or deaths related to measles infection are still not uncommon. By increasing awareness about the importance of vaccination and making vaccines available in regions where they are needed, the virus that causes measles could be eradicated.

Measles, also called rubeola, is a common and preventable childhood disease, also sometimes seen in individuals with compromised immune systems. Most frequently, infection is marked by a fever lasting a couple of days, followed by a cough, runny nose, and conjunctivitis.  Soon after, patients exhibit a rash on the face and upper neck, spreading down the back and trunk to the arms and legs. Reports indicate that 30 percent of people infected with measles will experience complications, ranging from ear infections to pneumonia. Further, one in every 1,000 people will develop inflammation of the brain. If left untreated, the complications associated with measles infection can be life threatening. In regions without widespread access to medical care, an estimated five percent of children die of measles-related causes.

According to William Schaffner, an infectious disease expert at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, the measles virus infects more than 80 percent of unvaccinated people exposed to it. Though the transmission of endemic measles was declared eliminated in the U.S. in 2000, the disease remains common in other regions and can be imported by travelers. Reports from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) indicate that during 2008, nearly 90 percent of measles cases in the U.S. were either acquired abroad or linked to imported cases. While a safe and cost-effective vaccine is available, more than 20 million people are affected by measles each year and the majority live in developing nations and/or countries with low per capita incomes and weak health infrastructures.

Though measles outbreaks continue to be problematic in some developing regions, the World Health Organization reports that between 2000 and 2007, 576 million children were vaccinated against measles, resulting in a 74 percent decrease in measles-related deaths worldwide. By increasing awareness about the importance of vaccinations and ensuring that vaccines for measles are available, rates of infection, complications due to infection, and death could be even further reduced.

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