The US must act now to help stop the global measles surge

The US must act now to help stop the global measles surge
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More than 140,000 people died last year from measles.

That’s the headline coming out of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and World Health Organization (WHO) today. It’s staggering; in our modern age, absolutely no one should die from measles — a disease we can prevent with a safe, effective vaccine that costs roughly two dollars. Our government must do more to make the vaccine as widespread globally as the measles virus is itself. 

We continue to see outbreak after outbreak across the globe. Measles spreads like wildfire in countries that face conflict and collapse, like the Democratic Republic of Congo and Venezuela.

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But we have also seen historic outbreaks here at home. In October, the United States was on the verge of losing its measles elimination status of almost 20 years. This year, the U.S. saw its worst outbreaks since 1992, largely due to unvaccinated U.S. residents introducing the virus into communities that have low immunity rates.

The good news is that, regardless of whether the outbreak is within our borders or not, the United States can make sure measles no longer robs children of their chance to thrive. The U.S. government has been a long-time contributor to the Measles & Rubella Initiative, a global partnership dedicated to achieving a world without measles and rubella. Last year alone, the initiative’s support helped 37 countries vaccinate nearly 350 million children.

The U.S. has also been a steadfast supporter of Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance and its efforts to stop measles and reach the most marginalized with life-saving vaccines. From 2012-2018, Gavi funds helped vaccinate more than 54 million people against measles.

Through these collective efforts, measles vaccination alone is estimated to have helped save more than 23 million lives since the year 2000. This is a legacy the U.S. should be proud to contribute to — but we should also be the first in line to staunchly defend it.

In fact, Congress can do just that by passing the fiscal 2020 appropriations bills that fund global measles prevention and control activities through the CDC, as well as funding Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance through the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). House and Senate appropriators have included $50 million for CDC’s measles activities and $290 million for Gavi, but final passage of the bills has stalled.

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The United Nations is also facing a dire funding gap, limiting its ability to fully equip agencies like UNICEF and the WHO with the resources and personnel needed to keep children around the world healthy and prevent deadly threats like measles. We know diseases don’t stop at a country’s border, and global problems like measles need global, multilateral solutions. The U.N. is a critical part of preventing, detecting and responding to global disease outbreaks from measles to Ebola and beyond.

Larger funding gaps beyond fiscal 2020 are also hampering the global community’s ability to end vaccine-preventable disease in children. Gavi will soon begin its next cycle of work for the period 2021 through 2025, and in order to deliver on its ambitious plans to close gaps in immunization services around the world, it must secure at least $7.4 billion. This funding will support the most comprehensive package of immunization interventions in the organization’s history, including those that will get us back on track in the fight against measles.

Global donors, including the U.S. government, must come together to meet these funding needs in 2020 and beyond if we are going to get back on track in the fight against measles and declining vaccination rates. Estimates show 86 percent of children receive the first dose of the measles vaccine, but fewer than 70 percent receive the critical second dose that ensures lifelong immunity. These rates are well below the recommended 95 percent vaccination coverage required to keep communities measles-free. For most children around the world, the barrier is access to life-saving immunizations due to weak health systems, not acceptance of the intervention that is the cause of low vaccination rates.

We cannot turn the tide against these global measles outbreaks — and the rising, needless death tolls — without global cooperation. I urge Congress to not turn its back on its strong legacy of protecting the health and wellbeing of those around the world, especially the most vulnerable, by swiftly passing fiscal 2020 appropriations bills that fund global measles prevention activities and fund U.N. agencies. Keeping children healthy both here at home and abroad is a bipartisan issue all members can support. Fully funding U.N. agencies and the fight against vaccine-preventable diseases is the right thing to do, no matter where you stand politically.

Let us do what it takes to help children not only survive but thrive around the world.

Kate Dodson is the vice president for global health at the United Nations Foundation.