November 01, 2011

Portrait of a Resurgent Killer

-Graphic design by Greg Hubacek

Not long ago, it was tempting to think the battle against measles was being won. Stepped-up vaccination campaigns had driven the number of reported cases down to 32,000 in 2007, according to the World Health Organization, the lowest ever recorded. Over the past three years, however, there has been a resurgence. In 2009, more than 30 countries experienced widespread epidemics. In 2010, 28 countries declared epidemics, reporting 223,000 cases and 1,200 deaths. In 2011, many African countries have experienced large-scale outbreaks, particularly the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

MSF was a pioneer in the move to vaccinate widely for measles after epidemics had already started, saving many lives in the process. In 2010, MSF vaccinated more than 4.5 million children in Chad, Malawi, South Africa, Yemen, Zimbabwe, and other countries. Through August of this year, teams had vaccinated more than 3 million children in DRC alone.

Measles is prominent in South Asia and present in many other countries—cases are rising in the US and Europe as well—but it’s in Africa where the evidence is most striking. The data shows the urgent need for action but most countries that experience epidemics do not adequately mobilize resources and organize vaccination campaigns. They pay a heavy price, and the costs may well rise as case numbers continue to climb back towards previous levels. In addition to its work in the field, MSF is calling for an effective outbreak response mechanism, backed by secure financial and technical resources, to be established immediately. "We know for a fact that there will be additional epidemics in the near future," said Florence Fermon, MSF's vaccination coordinator. "It would simply not be right to wait for them to occur. We need an effective system to anticipate and prepare for the coming outbreaks."

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