Nationwide anti-measles campaign launched

A group of five leading global public health organisations have launched a nationwide anti-measles campaign in Kenya, to be conducted from 17 to 23 June, through vaccinations targeting some 14 million children between the ages of nine months and 14 years, who constitute up to 40 percent of the country's population.

In a joint statement released on Thursday, the five organisations comprising the partners in the campaign, called the Measles Initiative - namely the United Nations Children's Fund, World Health Organisation, American Red Cross (ARC), the United Nations Foundation and Centres for Disease Control and Prevention - said it was aimed at preventing 18,000 child deaths occurring in Kenya annually.

Vaccination is the most cost-effective intervention against measles - the leading vaccine-preventable childhood killer in the world.

"This effort could be considered one of the most significant public health campaigns in the history of Kenya in terms of the scope and impact on children's health," Mark Grabowsky, a senior health adviser with the international service of the ARC, noted in the statement. "Our goal is to provide measles vaccines to 100 percent of the country's at-risk children to make sure that each child is protected from this deadly and easily preventable disease."

Measles, a highly contagious disease, each year kills at least a million children - of whom 450,000 are in Africa - either directly or by weakening their immune systems, thereby rendering the patient susceptible to a host of other infections, according to the joint statement.

Visible signs of the disease, which "affects virtually all African communities", include fever, rash, running nose, cough, red eyes, red lips, peeling of the skin and breathing difficulties. However, the disease was "completely" preventable through the administration of a vaccine, costing less than a dollar per child, it added.

The Measles Initiative partners launched the programme in February 2001, as a long-term commitment aimed at vaccinating some 200 million children in Africa, where most measles-related deaths occur, over a five-year period.

Kenya is on one of nine countries to benefit from the Measles Initiative this year, which aims at vaccinating some 44 million children. In 2001, when the initiative was launched, about 20 million children in eight African countries, comprising Uganda, Tanzania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Togo, Cameroon, Ghana and Benin, were vaccinated. This year's campaigns, target Kenya, Ghana, Benin, Cameroon, Tanzania, Malawi, Zimbabwe, Lesotho and Swaziland, according to the joint statement.

Preparations for the nationwide measles campaigns, the cost of which officials have placed at US $15 million, began much earlier in the year.

Josephine Lesiamon, who heads the measles programme at the Kenya Expanded Programme for Immunisation - the body charged with coordinating immunisation programmes within the Ministry of Health - told IRIN in February that the ministry was making preparations for the campaign with a number of organisations. "We are working with various organisations which are undertaking activities pertaining to their capabilities. We also have a group involved with social mobilisation," she said. See IRIN report on: KENYA-UGANDA: New focus on preventing measles.

Abbas Gullet, head of the Kenya Red Cross Society, which has a national network of volunteers, told IRIN that his organisation would contribute towards the measles awareness effort. "The Red Cross has been enlisted, because it is a civil society with a network of branches everywhere," he said. "Our volunteers will be doing the door to door campaigns, but our role is to complement and supplement the efforts of the government."

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies has also contributed towards the preparation work for the campaign, by organising workshops in which focal individuals who are to supervise and monitor the volunteers received training, according to Federation's programme released on Wednesday.