Fifty-sixth session of the WHO Regional Committee for the Western Pacific, 19 to 23 September 2005
NOUMEA, New Caledonia—Countries in the Western Pacific Region have identified 2012 as the target year to eliminate measles and control hepatitis B. This will help to avert almost 30 000 measles-related deaths among children and dramatically reduce the nearly 350 000 deaths from hepatitis B every year.
Apart from disease-specific benefits, the initiative will also contribute to the overall strengthening and sustainability of primary health care services. However, this will need not only political commitment from national governments, but also substantial and sustained financial commitments from donor partners, the World Health Organization has emphasized.
"Setting a target date for the two diseases will provide a clear framework and facilitate focused efforts and political commitment on the part of both national and international partners," Dr Shigeru Omi, WHO Regional Director for the Western Pacific, told a meeting here of the WHO Regional Committee.
Despite a 95% reduction in measles deaths in the Western Pacific Region since the pre-vaccine era, the illness remains a leading cause of vaccine-preventable deaths among children. Almost 30 000 children die each year from measles in the Region, nearly all of them in five countries: Cambodia, China, the Lao People's Democratic Republic, Papua New Guinea and the Philippines. It also leaves at least as many with lifelong disabilities such as blindness, deafness and brain damage.
In June 2005 a WHO Technical Advisory Group acknowledged the difficulties of eliminating measles in every country in the Region by 2012, especially in China, where measles elimination may require more time and effort in some provinces. But the advisory group agreed that the Region should aim for the 2012 goal.
In 2002, WHO estimated the measles burden in the Region might be as high as 6.7 million cases, with 30 000 deaths. Dr Omi noted, "The children who bear the brunt of measles disability and death are the poorest and the most disadvantaged children in the Region who usually do not have access to health services, and thus these cases go unreported."
He described the 92 000 reported cases in 2004 as " underestimating the size of the problem" due to weak surveillance systems, especially in countries and areas with the highest disease burdens.
The Western Pacific Region also bears a disproportionate burden of morbidity and mortality related to hepatitis B. With only one third of the world's population, the Region has more than 50% of global deaths due to hepatitis B. The disease claims the lives of about 890 people per day, or 20-22 deaths per 100 000 population. The regional goal is to reduce the prevalence rate from the current level of 8%-10% to less than 2% among children under five years old by 2012. This is an interim milestone on the way to the final regional goal of less than 1%. The Western Pacific Region is the first WHO Region to have introduced a hepatitis B vaccine in all national immunization programmes and the first one to set a time-specific regional goal to control hepatitis B.
WHO is developing an Asian-Pacific Immunization and Measles Elimination partnership, which will include financial support for the less developed countries and areas.
The Regional Committee is meeting in this Pacific island country to review WHO's work in the Region, as well as to plan future health directions. About 100 representatives from Member States, including a number of Ministers of Health, are attending the meeting.