Tragic news reach us from Yemen: at least 126 children have died from measles since mid-2011 due to a breakdown in basic health services as a consequence of political troubles. The Yemeni government has asked for international assistance with a vaccination campaign that will begin in the hardest-hit regions in early March.
The latest numbers (February 2012) show a total of 3,767 confirmed cases resulting in 126 deaths, since mid-2011, for a death rate of 1 in 30 infected. 70% of infections, and all of the 126 deaths, were in children under 5 years of age, an age-group group that is most hard hit by measles. By comparison, in the three years from the beginning of 2007 until the end of 2009, a total of 211 cases and no deaths have been reported.
“It’s very sad that we were talking about elimination in 2010, and now we are dealing with an outbreak,” said Arwa Baider, a child health programme officer at the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF).
“The disease is spreading fast, reaching highly populated areas as well as areas with high levels of acute malnutrition,” Geert Cappelaere, a representative of UNICEF in Yemen, told IRIN. “There is a very valid concern of many more deaths if a massive country-wide immunization campaign is not started immediately.”
“The outbreak is a direct result of a decrease in routine immunization services during 2011; which is a direct result of the 2011 conflicts,” added Cappelaere.
There were various reasons that attributed to the decrease in vaccination rates in 2011, but two stand out. First, doctors and vaccination teams were unable to get vaccines to conflict-affected areas due to being stopped at checkpoints, being short of staff, or having the vaccines go bad due to breaks in the cold chain because electricity cuts and fuel shortages (vaccines need to be refrigerated at all times during transportation or they will spoil), all-in-all resulting in the closure of 30 percent of immunization facilities.
Secondly, there appears to be a growing radical religious resistance to the vaccination process itself. According to Ali Jahhaf, the Ministry of Health’s director-general of family health:
Radical religious groups say that vaccination is not needed, it’s against God’s will and so on. Some communities believe this and started to resist or not accept vaccination. This is one of the reasons why in those areas we see pockets of lower vaccination coverage.
Our routine coverage is now not up to the level where you can have general community immunity.
In response to the outbreaks, UNICEF in partnership with the Ministry of Health, WHO, and the US Agency for International Development, will launch the first phase of an emergency vaccination campaign on March 10 in the seven most affected areas. The second phase will target the whole country, but it is dependent on funding. The cost of the campaign is about US $9 million, a very small price to pay to prevent further suffering and loss of life.