SEATTLE — Measles is a highly contagious and potentially deadly viral infection. Nine out of 10 people who are unvaccinated and come in contact with the virus contract it. Rubella, also known as German measles, is not serious in children and adults but pregnant women can pass on it on to their unborn babies, causing congenital rubella syndrome (CRS). This condition can cause severe, life-long birth defects or miscarriages. Both these devastating diseases are preventable with simple, inexpensive vaccines, like those provided through the Measles and Rubella Initiative.
Although measles is preventable, it is still one of the major causes of death in children. Likewise, CRS is diagnosed in 100,000 children every year. Vaccine campaigns have made significant grounds in reducing its prevalence. Before 1980, when measles vaccines became routine, it killed 2.6 million people annually. In 2015, that number was down to 134,200. Vaccine campaigns have eradicated rubella and CRS in many countries and have completely eradicated them in the Americas. Although, since 2015, two outbreaks and 130 measles cases have been confirmed in the United States, and have been linked to recent anti-vaccine sentiment.
Part of the vaccination effort has been taken on by the Red Cross through its Measles and Rubella Initiative. The initiative, which started in 2001, is an endeavor of the American Red Cross, United Nations Foundation, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, UNICEF and the World Health Organization.
James Noe began working with the Measles and Rubella Initiative in 2012 after signing on with the Red Cross U.S. disaster action team. The Borgen Project had the opportunity to speak with Noe, and he attested to the good work that the Initiative has accomplished. Before its creation, measles was one of the top five causes of deaths in children; more than 500,000 would die every year. Noe said that in some African countries, parents would not name their children till after the child contracted and recovered from measles, because of the great likelihood of death.
Since 2001, the Measles and Rubella Initiative has vaccinated more than two billion children against measles, rubella, tuberculosis, polio and diphtheria. The goal is to have 95 percent of the world’s population vaccinated. If this much of the population has immunity, the remainder would be protected by what is known as herd immunity. In other words, measles and rubella would be eradicated worldwide. Those working with the Initiative hope to see this occur shortly after 2020.
Poverty may prevent this goal from being reached. Noe states that without adequate funding and political support, the gains made against measles and rubella may not be sustained.
Vaccination offers a large return on investment. For every dollar spent on vaccinating against measles, a country can expect to save $58. Several countries do not have the financial resources to implement a national vaccination campaign, despite the benefits. Furthermore, these developing nations do not have the healthcare or political systems in place to organize vaccination programs.
Poverty is also connected with measles and rubella outbreaks. Low-income families tend to live in highly populated urban settings. The crowded setting of cities and homes makes transmission of airborne diseases easier. This is further exacerbated by the fact that poor families tend to have less access to healthcare and may be more mobile which makes tracking populations, maintaining vaccination records and monitoring diseases more challenging.
Still, the Measles and Rubella Initiative is working hard to end both diseases. It has teams of volunteers going door to door, educating parents on the importance of vaccines, helping families get to vaccination sites and keep track of vaccination records. Noe describes how this becomes a personal mission for the initiative’s volunteers. Many are locals who have seen the destruction these diseases cause. Ethel Chisale, a local volunteer in Mchingi, Malawi, contracted measles herself and survived. She now goes door to door in her community for the Measles and Rubella Initiative.
Chisale and Noe share a common belief: Measles and rubella are preventable, so no child should suffer or die from them. The teams of volunteers with the Measles and Rubella Initiative walk, bike and drive miles in rain and sun, to reach each household with the lifesaving information about vaccines.
– Mary Katherine Crowley