In the 1960s, Dr. Samuel Katz first introduced the measles vaccine to Africa in the Nigerian village Imesi-Ile. He observed the vaccine's safety and efficacy.
"The mothers told me that their saying was, 'Don't count your children until the measles has passed,' because of their awareness of its severity and frequency of deaths," recalled Dr. Katz, the Wilburt Cornell Davison Professor and Chairman Emeritus of Pediatrics at Duke University.
But today that is different, thanks to the efforts of doctors like Dr. Katz who pioneered the vaccine and a partnership of humanitarian organizations including the Church that is helping the vaccine reach children around the globe.
Since October 2003, the Church has participated with the World Health Organization, UNICEF, the American Red Cross and Ministries of Health in an effort to decrease the incidence of measles worldwide.
Using 54,784 Latter-day Saint volunteers, the Church has contributed to measles campaigns in 28 countries. In total, 189,261,345 children have been vaccinated in the campaigns where Church members participated, according to Church Welfare Services.
And the effort is saving lives.
Worldwide deaths from measles were 242,000 in 2006, down from nearly 900,000 in 1999. The goal of the Measles Vaccination Initiative is to bring the mortality rate to fewer than 100,000 by 2010, said Dr. Peter Strebel of the World Health Organization.
Before the vaccine was available, the World Health Organization estimated that 6 million to 8 million children died annually from measles.
"With the use of the vaccine, this was reduced to about one million by the end of the century.
And you know the incredible work of the measles partnership in further reducing deaths by 68 percent in the past five years, and their goal of 90 percent reduction by 2010," Dr. Katz told the Church News in e-mail correspondence. "The commitment of the LDS Church to participation in the partnership is evidence of its advocacy for health and happiness for all infants and children," he added.
Measles is the most highly transmissible of any of the known viruses and always manages to find the susceptible unvaccinated individuals when it is brought into a community, explained Dr. Katz.
Among children in resource-poor nations, measles can cause as much as 10-20 percent mortality, because these infants and children are also the victims of poor nutrition, malaria and worm infestations, he said. Survivors might suffer from blindness, mental retardation and other serious complications.
Measles has two faces. It is one of the most contagious diseases known. Yet it is also recognized as the most vaccine preventable disease. The cost of a measles vaccination is about 83 cents. Dr. Strebel said the initiative has been successful as organizers have worked with governments to accelerate measles control during a large number of vaccination campaigns. The campaigns target children who have never had measles vaccinations.
The Church, he said, has been "a fantastic partner" in the Measles Initiative since 2003, playing two important roles: First, he said, they have contributed funding that has primarily been used to purchase vaccine.
"More important than the funding," he added, "is the role the Church has played in social mobilization."
Local Latter-day Saints, with the help of Church service missionaries, have informed people about the benefits of the vaccinations, addressed their concerns about vaccinations and notified locals of vaccination point locations, said Dr. Strebel.
The enthusiasm of the "Mormon volunteers contributed to getting 90 to 95 percent of the children in some areas" immunized against measles, he said.
Elder Demoine Findlay and Sister Joyce Findlay, Church service missionaries, have worked on six measles campaigns. Local Church members and their support truly are the strength of the program, said Sister Findlay.
In Togo, for example, she said, the Church's logo was added to all campaign materials because organizers recognized the important service of the local members.
In addition, she said, Church members have experienced the joy of service without compensation, something uncommon in many African nations.
One young man told Sister Findlay, after working on a campaign, "I just feel like more a member of the Church now. I feel like the Church is my family. I have given of my time, I feel a connection to the Church."
Elder Terry Morris, who served as a Church service missionary with his wife, Sister Danne Morris, said it is gratifying to see children receive the measles vaccine as a result of the effort. It is equally gratifying, he said, to see Church members learn service.
Kalu Iche Kalu, Aba Nigeria Stake measles coordinator, said it was a privilege to have participated in the effort, which he called "an opportunity for a personal expression of love through service."
During the campaign, he said, Church members went house to house and village hall to village hall. "In one of the hamlets we visited, a middle-age woman told us she had lost three of her children to measles. She told her story with such grace and passion that there was not a dry eye in the house, mine included.
"I learned that we all benefit by reaching out and helping others. The things you do for yourself are gone when you are gone but the things that you do for others remain as your legacy."
In 2008, the Church has or will participate in campaigns in Togo, Papua New Guinea, Ivory Coast, Tanzania, Malawi, Mozambique, Egypt, El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala and Benin.
"It is a thrill to see those little children get vaccinated and to know that it is a life-saving thing, to know that thousands and thousands of lives are being saved," said Sister Findlay. "It is not because of us or anything we are doing, it is because of the combined efforts of a lot of people working together."
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