KAKUMA, Kenya – Last week, I traveled to the Kakuma refugee camp in northwest Kenya, where many South Sudanese have fled after weeks of turmoil in their home country. The camp offers refuge to more than 130,000 people – mostly women and children who had to leave nearly everything behind. During my time at Kakuma, I was humbled by the important work that is being done by United Nations humanitarian workers and their partners to provide food, shelter and safety for the refugees.
While visiting Kakuma 1 Hospital, I saw many children suffering from malaria and malnutrition. But I was most struck when the head community health worker there told me about a one-month-old baby girl who was admitted with a severe case of measles, brought by refugees arriving from South Sudan. The baby was so ill that the health worker feared she would not make it.
Many refugees around the world flee their homes to escape insecurity and violence, but the sad reality is that they also face the deadly threat of infectious diseases like measles. This threat often emerges in conflict zones as routine immunization breaks down and humanitarian aid is restricted.
The one-month-old girl in Kakuma survived, thanks to rapid and effective treatment at Kakuma 1 Hospital, but in South Sudan, measles has already caused the death of at least 30 children in the past several weeks. There have been 82 cases of the highly contagious respiratory infection among South Sudanese refugees in Kakuma, and the measles ward is now quarantined to prevent the spread of the disease.
While measles can devastate in regions of war and instability, crisis situations are, unfortunately, not the only places where we find this preventable disease.
According to new data released last week by the World Health Organization, measles is responsible for more than 330 deaths per day, mostly among children. Last year, an estimated 21.2 million infants were not vaccinated against measles, with the majority of those in six countries in Asia and Africa, and large outbreaks took place from Spain to Somalia, Nepal to Nigeria.
The measles virus doesn’t respect borders or boundaries. It can cross from South Sudan to the Kakuma camp, take a trip from the U.K. over the ocean to the U.S., or could even make its way from Ukraine to large events like the Sochi Olympics.
Simply put: Measles is a risk to all of us – and eradicating it should matter to all of us.
There is good news: We have the vaccines and know-how to end measles, and the new data from WHO show that important gains have been made in the past several years. For example, measles cases fell by 77 percent from 2000 to 2012 and measles deaths dropped by 78 percent during that same time period, from more than 562,000 per year in 2000 to 122,000 per year in 2012.
These declines are thanks, in large part, to the efforts of governments, UN agencies, and partnerships like the Measles and Rubella Initiative, which the UN Foundation helps lead. This initiative has helped reach more than 1.1 billion people through measles vaccination campaigns since 2000. Because of these efforts, measles vaccination has averted 13.8 million deaths.
While progress has been made, now is the time for the international community to step up and protect children everywhere from this deadly, but preventable disease, and particularly in vulnerable places like Kakuma.
The Kakuma 1 Hospital in the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya, where UN Foundation President and CEO Kathy Calvin traveled in February 2014.
Alex Kwameru/UN Foundation
Global immunization coverage has held steady at 84 percent since 2009, but holding steady – or, in other words, standing still – is not a recipe for eliminating measles.
We must close the remaining gaps in immunization coverage and expand access to vaccines for children in the hardest-to-reach areas. We also need to help educate parents on the importance, safety, and effectiveness of the measles vaccine to avoid losing ground in certain parts of the world. In one stark example, WHO data show that the U.K. had more measles cases than Bangladesh in 2012.
When we fail to vaccinate, no matter where in the world we live, the outcome is the same; we see measles outbreaks and the pain, and sometimes death, that can accompany them.
The world must marshal the commitment and resources to ensure that all people have the benefits of life-saving vaccines that protect against diseases like measles and rubella. This will also bring us closer to achieving Millennium Development Goal 4, to reduce child mortality by two-thirds by 2015.
A “mop up” measles vaccination campaign will soon begin in Kakuma, with the goal of ensuring that all children age 6 months to 15 years in the camp are protected against the disease. In its 51st year of safely and effectively preventing measles, the measles vaccine is helping to ensure that a crisis situation is not exacerbated further by the resurgence of measles. To bring the world closer to making measles a disease of the past, we must ensure access to measles vaccination not only for the children of Kakuma but for children everywhere.
Kathy Calvin is the president and chief executive officer of the United Nations Foundation.
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