It is sometimes hard to think of measles as a major killer – how bad can a childhood illness be? For most of us living in the developed world it now just that, although last year saw the fist British fatality in 14 years. If you live elsewhere it is a different story. It is heartening to read that Measles deaths have been slashed by more than half by campaign that might just pave the way for its eradication.
Between 1999 and 2005, there was a 60% reduction in annual measles deaths worldwide, from 873,000 to 345,000, according to United Nations figures reported in the medical journal the Lancet. In Africa, there was a 75% drop in deaths. In 1999, 506,000 African children died - 90% aged under five. By 2005, the figure had fallen to 126,000.
"This is a historic victory for global public health, for the power of partnership and for commitment by countries to fight a terrible disease," said Dr Margaret Chan, the WHO director-general. "In many parts of Africa the results are very visible and very striking. Instead of seeing numerous fresh graves for young children, this is something of the past. Many measles wards have become empty."
The next goal is even more ambitious - to cut measles deaths by 90% of the 1999 level by 2010. There is even cautious talk of the possibility of ridding the world of measles, but while the eradication of smallpox was a triumph, the long struggle to eliminate the final reservoirs of polio in a handful of countries has shown how difficult it is to stamp out a disease. To reach the 90% goal, the campaign will have to improve the immunisation levels in Africa and attend to other hotspots, including India and Pakistan.