Story Highlights• Worldwide measles deaths down 60 percent since 1999
• Drop attributed largely to a 75 percent decline in measles deaths in Africa
• Numbers exceed U.N. goal to cut measles deaths in half between 1999 and 2005
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The number of people who died worldwide from measles has fallen 60 percent since 1999, a decrease being called an incredible achievement in global public health.
The partners in the Measles Initiative immunization program -- including the World Health Organization, the American Red Cross, UNICEF, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the United Nations Foundation -- noted Thursday that the numbers exceed the U.N. goal to cut measles deaths in half between 1999 and 2005.
The group said the drop is largely due to an unprecedented decline in measles deaths in Africa, which has the highest measles burden in the world. Rates there declined by 75 percent.
"Our promise to cut measles deaths by half and save hundreds of thousands of lives has not only been fulfilled, it has been surpassed in just six years, with Africa leading the way," said Dr. Margaret Chan, WHO's director-general. "This is a historic victory for global public health, for the power of partnership and for commitment by countries to fight a terrible disease."
According to WHO, global deaths fell from an estimated 873,000 in 1999 to 345,000 in 2005. About 90 percent of the deaths in both years were of children under the age of 5. For them, deaths dropped from 791,000 in 1999 to 311,000 in 2005.
"Immunizing children is clearly saving lives and contributing to the achievement of the millennium development goals," said Ann Veneman, UNICEF's executive director. "We must urgently build on this momentum with integrated community-based programs to help save the lives of the over 10 million children who die of preventable causes every year."
According to Veneman, half of those 10 million children are in Africa, even though the continent makes up only 11 percent of the world's population, making the 75 percent reduction on that continent quite an achievement.
"We are winning the fight against measles, which has long killed, sickened and disabled our children," said U Olanguena Awono, minister of public health for Cameroon. "Our determination is stronger than ever to make measles history by further strengthening our measles control activities."
The partnership estimates accelerated immunization efforts have averted more than 2 million deaths, in part because they have contributed to a reduction in child deaths from other causes, since measles immunization campaigns often are conducted along with other life-saving interventions such as polio vaccination, providing bed nets to protect against malaria, offering deworming medicine and giving vitamin A supplements.
In the wake of this success, the partnership has announced a new goal -- a 90 percent reduction in global measles death by the year 2010. It hopes to start campaigns in countries such as India and Pakistan, which have high numbers of measles deaths but no immunization programs.