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UNICEF and WHO respond to measles outbreak in North Korea

North Korean girl is waiting for vaccination

Pyongyang,  14 March 2007

In response to a major outbreak of measles in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), UNICEF and WHO are launching a nationwide immunization campaign from 14 - 16 March, to reach six million children aged 6 months to 15 years in its first phase. 

Since the first measles cases surfaced in November of last year, 3,500 people in 30 of the DPRK’s 204 counties have been diagnosed, including two adults and two infants who died. The latest data indicates that 40 per cent of cases are among of cases are among 11 to 19 year-olds and nine per cent among children under the age of five, according to UNICEF and WHO. 

A joint technical team consisting of four experts from UNICEF and WHO are currently in DPRK to assist in the planning and implementation of the campaign.

The first cases were initially believed to be rubella, as measles has not been reported in DPRK since 1992 and many of the country’s health workers are unfamiliar with the symptoms. Consequently, measles was diagnosed only after laboratory confirmation. After the DPRK Ministry of Public Health declared a nationwide measles outbreak on February 16, representatives from the public health ministry, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent, UNICEF and WHO met in Pyongyang to plan their response.

“Measles is highly contagious, but completely preventable,” said Gopalan Balagopal, UNICEF’s representative in DPRK. “For this campaign to be successful we must ensure that every child at risk of measles is properly vaccinated.”   Balagopal noted that the concentration of cases among adolescents and young adults suggests that they were among those who missed out on routine immunization coverage during the humanitarian crisis of the 1990s. 

Funding for the first phase of the measles campaign is being provided by UNICEF, which has procured 6.3 million doses of measles vaccine.  The second phase, planned to start on April 10, will be funded jointly by UNICEF, WHO and other donors and will aim to reach an additional 10.2 million people, aged 16 to 45.  The International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent is contributing $200,000 worth of vitamin A supplements, which will be distributed during the immunization campaign to increase children’s resistance to disease and improve their chances for survival, growth and development.

In total, over 16 million of the country’s 22 million people will be vaccinated at a cost of approximately US$ 6.3 million with the Government covering all operating costs, estimated at an additional US$ 2.5 million.

Spread through the air, measles is one of the most contagious diseases known.

As a result of scaled-up national immunization campaigns in Africa and Asia, worldwide measles deaths have fallen from an estimated 873,000 in 1999 to an estimated 345,000 in 2005 — a 60 per cent reduction globally.  Despite this progress, measles still remains a leading cause of vaccine-preventable death among children.


For more information:

Madeline Eisner, UNICEF Bangkok +66 81 701 4626, Email:

Miranda Eeles, UNICEF Geneva +41 22 909 5715, Email:

Rafael Hermoso, UNICEF New York +1 212 326 7516, Email:



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