Emergency Measles Vaccination Drive to be Launched in Ethiopia Tomorrow

08/08/2011 - UN officials, in collaboration with civil society, will vaccinate all children aged six months to 15 years living in Ethiopia's Kobe refugee camp to prevent the spread of the potentially deadly measles virus.

Only days after the Measles Initiative voiced concerns over decreased funding to eradicate the measles virus, a United Nations (UN) agency has reported a measles outbreak among displaced persons who have fled drought and famine-struck Somalia. Refugee children, said the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), are the most affected.

Aid workers from the UNHCR have leapt into action, vaccinating hundreds of children already in the Ethiopian refugee camp where the outbreak occurred. Children, whose bodies are still in development, are particularly vulnerable. Measles can cause pneumonia, malnutrition, extreme dehydration, ear infections and eye infections – perhaps blindness. Malnourished children already have weakened immune systems, making them susceptible to the virus and these illnesses.

Ethiopia's Kobe camp is the worst-affected. As such, non-governmental and UN health experts will launch a mass measles/polio emergency vaccination drive tomorrow, that will vaccinate all children between six months and 15 years old in hopes of containing the disease.

Measles is one of the leading causes of death among children living in the developing world when it comes to preventable diseases. Of the 530,000 deaths recorded in 2003, 395,000 were among children, according to information published by the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF). The virus accounts for 4 per cent of global under-five deaths, despite the fact that vaccinating a child against the illness costs only $1 per child.

Already, 300 children between the ages of six months and 15 years have been vaccinated over the weekend. These children, among other refugees, will soon be transferred to the camps in Hilaweyn, built to house 60,000 people.

As of information released today, there have been 47 measles cases detected and three deaths over the past week in the Kobe camp, which is providing emergency shelter to 25,000 people. Half of the 25 deaths since August 4 are thought to be measles-related.

The outbreak is being fuelled by the high levels of acute malnutrition among the inhabitants of the camp, in tandem with low vaccination rates and high population density on account of overcrowding in the camps. It is likely that poor hygiene and sanitation are also contributing to the public health crisis.

Targeting children remains essential. “We must act now, urgently and decisively, to arrest and turn around this situation,” said Moses Okello, who is the UNHCR’S Ethiopia representative.