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Kenya moves to stamp on measles outbreaks

In Kenya, around 1% of deaths among children less than 5 years old are caused by measles, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

A highly infectious viral disease, measles can spread rapidly, especially in communities where many have not been vaccinated. Having caught the disease, between 1 and 5% of children will then go on to die from the complications which can result.

Immunization has been proved to be effective and there have been significant reductions in cases of measles across Africa. However, a significant percentage of children on the continent either still do not receive the vaccination or are not given the first dose in time for immunity to take hold. The measles vaccine costs less than 1 US dollar and when it’s administered at around 9 months of age or older, will give life-long protection to around 85% of people.

In Kenya, officials estimate that around 15% of children miss out on this vital vaccination every year. Speaking to the news agency IRIN, the head of disease surveillance and response at the Ministry of Health explained that uptake was particularly low in rural areas where parents had to travel long distances from their homes to health centres. Regions in northern Kenya and areas of East Pokot (in the Rift Valley Province) were particularly affected by low uptake. Across the country as a whole, children also miss out on their vaccination because of long waiting times at hospitals or sometimes due to the religious beliefs of their parents; certain sects urge their followers to reject conventional medicine.

Recently, there have been worrying measles outbreaks across several areas of the country. According to the Public Health and Sanitation department, by 25 September this year, over 760 cases had been reported, compared with 665 cases for the whole of 2011 and over 30 under-fives have died since January last year.

The Kenyan government has therefore decided to conduct a ‘mop-up’ vaccination campaign. This will take place across the country, even in regions where no measles cases have been reported. The campaign will start in November and will target 6 million children (at a cost of around 5 million US dollars). Half of the funding will be met by the government, while the remainder will come from international partners such as the United Nations child agency UNICEF and the WHO.

As well as the measles vaccination, children between 9 and 59 months will also receive vitamin A supplements. In some regions, such as the North Eastern Province, the oral polio vaccine will additionally be given, especially to the children of refugee families, such as those from neighbouring Somalia. Officials also hope to provide the measles inoculation twice during the campaign to boost the strength of the vaccine, showing the determination of the Kenyan government to avoid the deaths of children from this preventable disease.

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