Measles killed more than 500 children between January and mid-March in Nigeria, Africa's most populous country, the World Health Organization (WHO) said on Sunday.
An overwhelming majority of the 561 deaths occurred in Nigeria’s northern region, where doctors say people are wary of vaccinations largely for religious reasons. And of the 23,575 cases recorded so far this year, WHO said more than 90 percent of the total were in the north.
Measles remains a leading cause of death among young children across the globe, health experts say. Despite a safe and effective vaccine being available for the past 40 years, more than half a million people died of the disease worldwide in 2003.
The figures provided for Nigeria so far in 2005 cover only 13 of the country’s 36 states so the numbers may rise as figures from other states come in and transmission of the disease spreads, Melissa Corkum, the WHO spokeswoman in Nigeria, explained.
“We are now in the highest transmission season which peaks in March,” Corkum told IRIN.
Corkum said northern Nigeria was hardest hit because the region has “low immunisation and low immunity” against measles, a viral illness which is extremely contagious.
Traditionally-low immunisation rates in Nigeria’s mainly-Muslim north worsened in recent years on the heels of a widespread resistance to polio vaccination that was whipped up by radical preachers claiming such campaigns were a Western plot to sterilize Muslims and infect them with HIV/AIDS.
In 2003, Kano state began a polio vaccination boycott which continued for 11 months until July last year, coming to an end only after tests were conducted in Nigeria and abroad by President Olusegun Obasanjo’s government to reassure governor Ibrahim Shekarau of the safety of the vaccines. Three other northern states also briefly banned the vaccine.
“The net effect was that a lot of people became wary of vaccinations in general, with the consequences we’re now seeing,” said Charles Okoye, a doctor based in Kano, who has treated some of the recent measles cases.
Kano state had the biggest number of measles-related deaths, with 155 deaths in January and February alone.
Globally, deaths from measles are in decline, dropping by 39 percent from 873,000 deaths in 1999, to 530,000 in 2003, WHO and the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) announced earlier this month. In Africa, the region with the highest burden of the disease, deaths from measles fell by 46 percent over the same period.
WHO and UNICEF are trying to halve measles deaths in Africa in comparison with the 1999 toll by the end of 2005 and are trying to enforce routine measles immunisation for at least 90 percent of under-fives. The two agencies also aim to give all children aged between nine months and 14 years a second chance at vaccination.
An increasing number of states in Nigeria have committed to making sure children are immunised against measles, WHO said.
Kano, Kaduna, Kebbi and Jigawa, which are among the worst hit states, conducted special campaigns in February to protect children against measles, said WHO spokeswoman Corkum.
While immunisations have been carried out in the past on a regional basis, Nigeria’s government plans to carry out its first nationwide measles vaccination campaign in December.