Doubling our Impact in a Single Shot

21/02/2012 14:50 GMT | Updated 18/04/2012 10:12 BST

We have a chance to make history in the fight against rubella and measles. The human and economic toll of these diseases is huge and preventable.

In some places, rubella--often referred to as German measles-- is no longer the threat it used to be. During the last large-scale epidemic in the United States, in the mid-1960s, about 12.5 million people were infected and more than 20,000 infants were born with related birth defects. Thanks to widespread vaccination in almost 50 years since the epidemic, rubella has disappeared from the Americas.

But for millions of mothers and children in poorer countries with limited access to vaccines, rubella poses an on-going danger. Pregnant women who contract rubella in the first 10 weeks risk a miscarriage or stillbirth and there's a 90% chance their child will be born with serious birth defects - such as blindness, deafness, or heart disease - known as Congenital Rubella Syndrome, or CRS. With at least 110,000 babies born with CRS every year, the consequences can be staggering.

The GAVI Alliance, the Measles Initiative, and our partners are committed to creating a dramatically different scenario by building on the success of accelerated measles control efforts. This year, GAVI will begin to fund catch-up campaigns to provide a combined Measles-Rubella (MR) vaccine. Following guidelines from WHO, the campaigns will target children aged 9 months to 14 years inclusive and ensure the impact is lasting by embedding MR vaccine into continuing immunisation programmes. In response to country demand, we anticipate introducing MR vaccine into 30 countries by the end of 2015 and by 2018 we expect to support at least a further 20 developing countries.

In 2000, measles killed more than 700,000 children. A global drive led by the Measles Initiative to increase access to measles vaccine has protected more than 1 billion children, raised measles routine coverage to 85% and reduced measles deaths by 78%. This has contributed to about a quarter of the reduction of child mortality globally since 1990 as we strive to reach the Millennium Development Goals.

Investments in measles control have also led to tens of thousands of trained health workers, detailed plans and mapping, community demand and logistics systems to reach children with vaccines no matter how remote their village. Now to combat rubella, countries can use the same platform and deliver MR vaccine.

The Measles Initiative, which has already mobilised and invested US $875 million for measles control including generous support from GAVI, will continue to raise funds for immunisation, surveillance, and research, and provide technical support to countries to ensure children have opportunities to receive MR vaccine.

Developing countries supported by GAVI and the Measles Initiative will play their part by continuing to fully fund and provide MR after the catch-up campaigns.

While GAVI and the Measles Initiative rightly focus resources in developing countries, industrialised countries must also step-up efforts as outbreaks have led to measles importation across borders. More than 33,000 people in Europe suffered measles last year due primarily to a failure to vaccinate, according to WHO. A recent meeting of health experts in Rome on progress toward eliminating rubella and CRS in Europe underscores the need to address both diseases simultaneously and globally through partnership, political commitment and funding. There's no better time to seize this opportunity.