Improved immunization rates across the world for measles has contributed to a decline in deaths by 71% since 2000, but there is still more to be done.
As the measles vaccine reaches its 50th anniversary, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is recognizing these achievements and renewing its dedication to make further progress against the disease.
“As long as there is measles anywhere in the world, there is a threat of measles anywhere else in the world,” said Dr. Tom Frieden, CDC director, at a December 5 event. “We have seen an increasing number of cases in recent years coming [to the United States] from a wide variety of countries.”
Frieden called the development of the measles vaccine a great accomplishment of science, medicine and human ingenuity. Thorough and effective vaccination programs by nations of the Western Hemisphere have effectively eradicated the disease in the region for about a decade. But measles is a highly infectious pathogen, and until vaccination is thoroughly and regularly conducted everywhere, global health security is still at risk, he said.
“Pathogens cross borders effectively, and that’s why we need to improve further on our support and partnership with the World Health Organization and with countries around the world to better find, stop and prevent threats to health,” said Frieden.
Before the introduction of the measles vaccination, as many as 2 million people died from the viral disease each year. After successful testing and trials, the vaccine won a license in the United States in 1963, and large-scale vaccination began.
Dr. Samuel Katz was a co-creator of the vaccine with Dr. John Enders, now deceased. Katz, who attended the CDC event, expressed appreciation for the recognition, but said equal appreciation should be given to people making sure the vaccine reaches children.
“The people who are taking the measles vaccine into Mozambique, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh” deserve adulation, Katz said. Noting that low-income countries with undeveloped health care systems carry the greatest disease burden, Katz still expressed hope. “It is possible to eliminate measles even in these countries,” he said.
Katz serves as a professor and chair emeritus of pediatrics at Duke University Medical School and is co-chair of the National Network for Immunization Information.
Measles caused 158,000 deaths worldwide in 2011, down from 548,000 as recently as 2000, according to WHO. Still, more than 20 million people are affected by measles each year, most in developing countries.
Peter Strebel is a WHO coordinator for immunization and vaccines who also attended the CDC event December 5. He said the success of the vaccine has inspired the goal of measles and rubella elimination in five of WHO’s six regions by 2020.
“Since 2001, the Measles and Rubella Initiative has supported vaccination in 60 countries, reaching more than 1 billion children, and developed a global laboratory network for the diagnosis and identification of both measles and rubella viruses,” Strebel said.