Guest Post by: Andrea Gay, Executive Director of Children’s Health at the United Nations Foundation
For the last ten years, I have seen thousands of children cry after being pricked by needle for a vaccination against measles –a deadly disease that is preventable by one quick, albeit painful, shot.
I witnessed it again this week in northern Nigeria, as the country launched a nationwide integrated measles campaign to protect 31 million children against the deadly disease. Every child nine months to five years old is receiving a measles vaccine, in addition to an oral polio vaccine for newborns through five year-olds.
Americans, who haven’t seen widespread measles outbreaks in the U.S. in decades, might be surprised to learn that measles still kills more than 450 people each day and that children are still at risk of paralysis from contracting polio.
But we are making progress—a decade ago, more than 700,000 children died from measles every year, but now the mortality rate has declined significantly – 78 percent worldwide and more than 90 percent in Africa. Strengthening routine immunization systems and increasing the capacity of trained health workers from previous health campaigns have helped pave the way for the elimination of measles.
Thanks to the leadership of Nigeria’s Ministry of Health, U.N. Agencies, nongovernmental agencies, and the support of traditional and religious leaders ahead of and during immunization campaigns, measles and polio have nearly been eliminated in Nigeria.
USAID worked closely with Nigerian counterparts to reinforce these efforts and revitalized the polio immunization teams by hiring independent monitors to conduct spot checks to quickly identify problems and improve motivation and coverage. Working outside their own communities and the polio team structure, the monitors have proven to be very effective.
As I have witnessed during this and many other trips, integrated campaigns are one of the most cost-effective and efficient ways to eliminate both polio and measles. Immunizations for both diseases need to get to the same children who are often the most vulnerable and in the hardest to reach places. Eliminating both of these diseases can and should move forward together and it would be a missed opportunity not to put a stop to them both at the same time.
But we can’t do this alone. Funding shortfalls are threatening our recent gains. The Government of Nigeria is one of the African countries leading the way in financing immunization campaigns. However these diseases spread like wildfire, and even Nigeria has seen recent measles and polio outbreaks because not all of the children have been reached. The donor community must step up to support the elimination of measles and the eradication of polio as soon as possible so we can build off of our gains, instead of lose them.
Every shot, no matter how painful it is to watch for those brief seconds, offers a lifetime of health and promise for millions of children in Africa and around the world.