News of the measles outbreak at California’s Disneyland and information about vaccinations are making headlines this week, but the American Red Cross has been focused on the virus—and its elimination—for nearly a decade and a half. In that time, the Red Cross, as a partner in the Measles & Rubella Initiative (M&RI), has vaccinated 1.1 billion children in some 80 countries, helping to raise measles vaccination coverage to 84% globally, and reduced measles deaths by 71%.
Even though measles was eliminated from the United States in 2000, outbreaks can occur when unvaccinated travelers pick up the measles abroad, importing the virus as an unwelcome, and often unknown, souvenir. Last year’s outbreaks in Ohio, Washington state, New York, San Diego and Nebraska have all been linked back to unvaccinated Americans that had recently visited measles hotspots abroad.
Those hotspots are exactly the type of places where M&RI is working the hardest. The Red Cross serves a unique role in these efforts, supporting the critical task of house-to-house canvassing before, during and after vaccination campaigns in order to reach the 95% coverage rate needed for a campaign to be successful. At just $1 to vaccinate a child, the measles vaccine is one of the most cost effective interventions in global health. And while health advances have been impressive, outbreaks like the one in California—now confirmed at 51 cases—have clearly demonstrated that the work of M&RI is far from over.
Measles is a highly contagious virus, spread by contact with an infected person through coughing and sneezing. When one person has measles, 90% of people they come into close contact with will become infected, if they are not already immune through vaccination or previous contraction.
Symptoms include a high fever, severe skin rash and cough and can result in secondary health problems such as pneumonia, blindness or even death. Before the formation of M&RI, more than 562,000 children died worldwide from measles complications each year, some 1,539 every day, mostly children under five years of age. While there have been great improvements, today an estimated 122,000 children—approximately 330 per day—still die from measles-related complications every year. This number is even more tragic when considering the mere $1 vaccination costs.
This fall, the American Red Cross, along with its M&RI partners, teamed up with the American Academy of Pediatrics to launch “Ivy + Bean versus The Measles.” The campaign features the immensely popular characters from the Ivy + Bean children’s book series and promotes measles immunization as a simple, safe and effective measure.
The images, illustrated by Sophie Blackall, are being used in a series of materials designed for clinics and pediatric offices throughout the United States and are meant to open the dialogue with parents and children on measles vaccinations in a non-threatening way. It’s the latest partnership with Blackall whose previous work was inspired after a trip to the Democratic Republic of Congo with M&RI. And with more domestic outbreaks surely in the future, it’s a conversation America’s families need to have.
For more information or to donate, visit www.measlesrubellainitiative.org. To see how Red Cross volunteers help spread the word during measles campaigns, watch Door to Door: A Measles Campaign in Benin.