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  • A girl cries as she receives a measles vaccine which is a part of a campaign organised by the World Health Organisation in Lagos December 12, 2008.

    A girl cries as she receives a measles vaccine which is a part of a campaign organised by the World Health Organisation in Lagos December 12, 2008. | Photo: Reuters

Published 15 February 2019

A report from the World Health Organization says the people of Madagascar, with the highest rate of malnutrition in Africa, are grappling with a deadly measles outbreak.

At least 922 children and young adults have died of the highly-contagious-yet-able-to-be-vaccinated disease, measles, in Madagascar since October of last year -- despite a huge emergency vaccination program, the World Health Organization (WHO) said Thursday.

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The official number of deaths are likely to be very incomplete, said Dr. Katrina Kretsinger of WHO's expanded program on immunization, and it' s the same with the current total of infections, which have reached 66,000. 

Measles is a highly contagious viral disease that is easily spread by the coughs and sneezes of those infected. If one person contracts measles, it is highly likely that 90 percent of unvaccinated people around them will become infected as well. It can cause blindness and brain swelling while increasing susceptibility to other diseases.

The disease can also leave children vulnerable to potentially fatal pneumonia or diarrhoeal diseases months later, said Katherine O’Brien, WHO director of Immunization, Vaccines and Biologicals.

So far, an emergency response has vaccinated 2.2 million of the 26 million population, Kretsinger said. Some had previously been vaccinated but, as they had only received one shot prior, they were given the more standard second "booster" shot. "We believe that should go a long way toward stemming the current outbreak," Kretsinger added.

The island nation in the Indian Ocean is one of Africa's poorest countries. In 2017, only 58 percent of the population had been vaccinated against measles. As there wasn't a large outbreak since 2003, many have not had a chance to develop an immunity to measles.

The country also has the highest children's malnutrition rate in Africa at 47 percent.

Malnutrition can increase the risk of serious complications and death from measles infection, WHO says. Madagascar plans to standardize a routine two-dose vaccination program later this year.

By 2017, WHO's international initiative to improve vaccine coverage resulted in an 80 percent reduction in deaths. The WHO Strategic Advisory Group of Experts on Immunization (SAGE) concluded that measles elimination "is greatly under threat, and the disease has resurged in a number of countries that had achieved, or were close to achieving, elimination."

Other countries, including in Europe and North America, have been experiencing more measles outbreaks lately. In developed nations like the United States, anti-vaccination campaigns and schools of thought have led to more children going unvaccinated for illnesses like the measles.

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