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Measles Vaccinations: Saving Millions of Lives Worldwide

By Gail McGovern, President and CEO the American Red Cross 

The unfolding outbreak of measles across the country has focused attention on whether parents should get their children vaccinated against measles and other diseases. This is a question the Red Cross answers approximately 100 million times a year around the world with life-saving vaccinations.

Mothers and children wait in line to be vaccinated in Cotonou, Benin after being informed of the campaign by Red Cross house-to-house mobilizers. American Red Cross/Javier Acebal.
Mothers and children wait in line to be vaccinated in Cotonou, Benin after being informed of the campaign by Red Cross house-to-house mobilizers. American Red Cross/Javier Acebal.

Measles is one of the most contagious diseases ever known. When one person has measles, 90 percent of the people they come into close contact with will become infected, if they are not already immune. Fortunately, since the 1960’s we have had the means to vaccinate people against measles to help immunize them. Despite the availability of an inexpensive measles vaccine, in the year 2000 over

562,000 children died worldwide from measles complications each year. Measles weakens the immune system and opens the door to secondary health problems, such as pneumonia, blindness, deafness, and brain damage.

In 2001, the American Red Cross, UNICEF, CDC, WHO, and the United Nations Foundation formed a partnership—the Measles & Rubella Initiative (M&RI)—and decided to do something that has turned into one of the most successful public health stories in our lifetimes. Supported by generous donors, the Red Cross and its M&RI partners have vaccinated over 1.8 billion children outside the U.S. against measles. More than 15.6 million needless deaths and countless cases of blindness, deafness, and brain damage caused by measles have been averted since launching the initiative. Still, despite reducing global measles deaths by 75% since 2000, today an average of 400 children die each day from a disease that can be prevented by a vaccine that costs about $1 and most of these children are younger than five years old. Our efforts to fight measles are continuing and we now are able to see the possibility of eliminating measles by 2020. In all of Mankind’s history, only one disease affecting humans – smallpox – has been eradicated. Now, we are within reach of banishing a second killer disease to the history books.

The current outbreak demonstrates that when people are not vaccinated, measles returns. To the parents who choose not to vaccinate their children because of philosophical reasons, the Red Cross echoes the plea made by our medical, political and scientific leaders: Please get your children vaccinated. Not only might it save the life of your child or prevent blindness and other terrible effects of measles, it will help protect children in your community who are too young to be vaccinated or cannot get vaccinated for medical reasons.

Around the world, the Red Cross and our partners are working with mothers and fathers to educate them that measles vaccinations are life-saving and safe. In the last 15 years, the parents of over 1.8 billion children have decided to get their children vaccinated against measles and over 15.6 million children are alive today because of their parents’ decision.

For more information or to donate, visit www.measlesrubellainitiative.org.