December 7, 2007 / 5:40 PM / 12 years ago

Complacency could jeopardize Africa health gains: UN

LIBREVILLE (Reuters) - Progress by African countries in reducing child deaths from infectious diseases such as measles could be lost unless governments improve routine immunization, a U.N. official said on Friday.

A child cries as he is vaccinated during a mass anti-measles campaign at a health post an hour's drive outside the border town of Moyale in Borena zone, Ethiopia March 24, 2006. Progress by African countries in reducing child deaths from infectious diseases such as measles could be lost unless governments improve routine immunization, a U.N. official said on Friday. REUTERS/Andrew Heavens

Vaccination campaigns funded by foreign donors have helped reduce deaths from measles in Africa by 91 percent since 2000 to 36,000 last year, according to U.N. figures. Most of the victims are children.

Andy Gay, head of children’s health at the United Nations Foundation (UNF), said the risk was now that some governments would assume the problem was solved and neglect vaccinations for diseases such as polio, meningitis, measles and tetanus.

“Vaccination programs have a relatively direct impact on disease, but the problem with this success is that people tend to think the problem has gone away,” she told Reuters during a measles immunization program in Gabon funded by the UNF.

African governments should capitalize on the swift progress made in fighting measles and aim now to eradicate the disease from the continent, Gay said.

Even when measles does not kill, it can leave children blind, brain damaged, or vulnerable to diseases such as pneumonia, the biggest cause of child mortality worldwide.

“This idea that this whole region could achieve something together is really important and countries need to feel that they are part of it, and that takes political leadership,” Gay said.

Nigeria, Ethiopia and Democratic Republic of Congo, despite their large populations, had made progress on getting their citizens used to receiving vaccinations, she said.

“The countries here that have the highest incomes like Gabon and Equatorial Guinea ought to be doing more,” she said, citing a lack of vaccines in Equatorial Guinea which lasted 13 months.

Despite per capita income of more than $5,000 — one of the highest in Africa — immunization levels in oil-rich Gabon remain around 50 percent of its 1.6 million people.

Any country that falls behind with vaccination programs and allows infection rates to rise, risks dragging down health indicators in neighboring countries, Gay said.

The risk was acute in sub-Saharan African countries where ethnic groups often straddle national boundaries and populations are highly mobile.

Citing the example of polio, Gay said a backlash against immunization in northern Nigeria in 2004 which suspended vaccinations for more than a year had allowed the disease to take hold again in the Sahel. More recently, Angola had been a reservoir for exporting the disease to neighboring countries.

The U.N. Foundation is a charitable fund established by CNN founder Ted Turner with a $1 billion grant in 1998 to support U.N. programs.

Editing by Nick Tattersall

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