A worldwide goal set by a consortium of health and humanitarian organizations is helping eradicate measles and other infectious diseases, and Church welfare has been assisting the cause by providing funding, service hours, and education.
The goal, which is to “reduce childhood mortality” by two-thirds by 2015, was set in 1990 by the United Nations Foundation, World Health Organization, Red Cross, United Nations International Children’s Fund, and the U.S. Center for Disease Control.
In 1990, health and humanitarian organizations pinpointed measles as the vaccine of focus because the disease was the leading killer of children around the world. Measles, also known as rubeola, is a very contagious virus that can cause fever, rash, white spots in the mouth, and pneumonia.
According to the World Health Organization, the disease caused an estimated 2.6 million deaths in 1980. Two years earlier, the First Presidency had issued a letter urging all members to “protect their own children through immunization.”
The letter came at a time when many vaccines against preventable diseases were available in the United States and elsewhere but weren’t used widely.
In the letter, the First Presidency also encouraged Church members to become socially involved in the public education and dissemination of vaccines that prevent infectious diseases.
“Immunization campaigns in the United States and other nations, if successful, will end much needless suffering and erase the potential threat of epidemics. Such efforts are deserving of our full support,” it read.
From 2003 to 2011, approximately 59,000 Church volunteers in 34 countries provided some 750,000 service hours to the cause, including support for localized health systems that administer measles vaccines.
South America, Africa, and Asia have been the primary recipients of free measles vaccines provided by the Church and others as part of the initiative.
“So far, South America has essentially been inoculated against the disease,” said Fred Riley, manager of special projects for LDS Humanitarian Services, emphasizing that areas of Africa and Asia are still frontiers for measles vaccines. “The goal has had a huge impact,” he said, “a miracle, really.”
By 2008, the measles mortality rate was down to approximately 164,000 deaths a year because of the worldwide effort—down 94 percent from 1980.
Brother Riley said that Humanitarian Services, which provides funding and organizes volunteers for the immunization initiative, helps increase awareness and vaccine use through an effort called social mobilization.
Social mobilization aims to increase the percent of children who receive the free immunizations and is provided by the participating organizations and individual countries’ ministry of health. Church welfare donations and volunteers help keep that effort going in parts of the world with low vaccination rates.
The self-sustainability of governmental health ministries is another priority, because countries with developing health infrastructures need training and education.
“We plan to shift our primary focus to immunization self-sustainability in developing countries,” Brother Riley said, emphasizing that historically, these countries have not been able to provide an adequate number of vaccines to citizens on their own because of lack of education, funds, or both.
“This funding isn’t going to be there forever for developing countries,” Brother Riley said. “We’re trying to build a local culture of volunteerism and self-reliance.”
More information about vaccinations and preventable diseases can be obtained at CDC.gov in English and Spanish.By Philip M. Volmar, Church News and Events