The World Health Organization (WHO) and the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) are calling on the international community to take urgent action to stem outbreaks of communicable diseases, namely measles, influenza, cholera, malaria and Ebola.
UNICEF launched an appeal for USD 122 million to bring humanitarian aid to Malawi, Mozambique and Zimbabwe, following a rise in cholera and malaria cases after Cyclone Idai, while WHO unveiled a global influenza strategy to reduce the yearly occurrence of one billion cases of the often-deadly virus.
In SDG 3 (good health and well-being), countries pledge to end epidemics of communicable diseases by 2030 (SDG target 3.3), and to provide access to safe, effective, quality and affordable essential medicines and vaccines for all (SDG target 3.8).
UNICEF made its appeal for Africa one month after Cyclone Idai displaced many thousands of people, affecting more than 130,000 children. UNICEF reports that more than 200,000 homes were destroyed in Mozambique alone, food security and essential services have been affected, and 7,500 cases of malaria and 4,600 of cholera have been reported.
The UN agency notes that children are especially vulnerable, with many remaining in temporary shelters. UNICEF is vaccinating people against cholera, distributing half a million mosquito nets, trucking in water supplies, restoring sanitation facilities, and giving psychosocial support to vulnerable children.
The day before the cyclone appeal, the WHO reported a rise in the number of Ebola cases in the North Kivu and Ituri provinces of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where armed groups are active. The ongoing outbreak of Ebola has taken 764 lives since August 2018, and WHO warns that the virus threatens to spread beyond DRC’s borders.
In a meeting convened by the WHO, an Emergency Committee called for increasing efforts to detect all Ebola cases as early as possible, promptly treating all cases and vaccinating healthcare workers exposed to the disease. The Committee urged neighboring countries to accelerate preparedness and surveillance efforts, and to conduct exit screening at border points.
Communicable diseases are also spreading in developed countries. WHO launched a global strategy on 11 March to limit the spread of influenza, noting that it remains one of the world’s greatest public health challenges, with up to 650,000 deaths occurring each year.
WHO recommends development and uptake of better tools for preventing, detecting and controlling influenza, for example, through using more efficient vaccines and anti-viral drugs, and investing in influenza-protection measures. The UN agency estimates the cost of such preparedness efforts to be USD4.5 billion a year, which is less than 1% of the cost of responding to a moderate to severe pandemic.
Measles outbreaks are also occurring in several countries, with large increases of reported cases in the US, DRC, Ethiopia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Madagascar, Myanmar, Philippines, Sudan, Thailand and Ukraine. UNICEF and WHO report that 100,000 people die from measles every year. They attribute the recent rise in cases to vaccine hesitancy related to incorrect information spread through social media.
The agencies call on governments and health authorities to support parents in their search for information, with the aim of creating a favorable environment for acceptance of vaccination. They welcome the steps taken by Facebook and Amazon to “quarantine” myths over vaccination safety. They also call on UN agencies and governments to promote scientific literacy, and ensure that services are affordable, accessible and responsive to parents’ needs.