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UNICEF hails immunization campaign to prevent birth defects in Central Asia

BISHKEK / NEW YORK / GENEVA, 28 November 2001 - UNICEF, the United Nations Children's Fund hailed the launch in Kyrgyzstan today of a massive immunization campaign to reach 2 million children and young people between the ages of 7 and 25 with rubella vaccines. The campaign is part of a regional strategy to eliminate measles and significantly reduce rubella in Central Asia and Eastern Europe by 2007.

Rubella is a major cause of birth defects in children, accounting for an estimated 110,000 cases of Congenital Rubella Syndrome (CRS) per year worldwide. If contracted during pregnancy, rubella often results in miscarriage or the birth of an infant with severe congenital defects including deafness, blindness, mental retardation and heart anomalies. The disease can easily be prevented by immunization.

"It is unacceptable for children to suffer from life-long birth defects such as deafness and blindness from congenital rubella syndrome when we have an effective, safe and inexpensive vaccine," said Carol Bellamy, Executive Director of UNICEF. "For just an additional 28 cents, a child can receive a combined rubella/measles vaccine, as part of routine immunization," she added.

UNICEF has taken the lead in preventing birth defects from Congenital Rubella Syndrome among new-borns in Kyrgyzstan by supporting a nationwide campaign to immunize all children with a combined rubella/measles vaccine. The other key partners supporting the effort include the Kyrgyz Ministry of Health, the World Health Organisation (WHO), the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), the Kyrgyz Red Crescent Society, the American Red Cross, the International Federation of Red Cross and the March of Dimes.

The campaign marks the first time that UNICEF has collaborated with March of Dimes in immunizing children against vaccine-preventable diseases.

"We hope this historic new collaboration between the March of Dimes and UNICEF is the beginning of a long and fruitful relationship between the two agencies," said Dr. Michael Katz, Vice-President for Research of the March of Dimes. "The work we are doing together will help prevent severe disability among children worldwide."

All the countries of Central and Eastern Europe have endorsed the WHO policy to significantly reduce rubella by 2007. Kyrgyzstan is the first country in the region to begin seriously addressing the problem. Ultimately, the campaign will avert up to 6,000 birth defects every year from congenital rubella syndrome in children in the region.

Launching the campaign, the Chief of President Administration, Mr. Karypkulov said, "Our country is committed to the regional goal of eliminating measles and rubella - two serious infections which cause damage to the health of the population. However, elimination of these diseases can only be achieved by maintaining high routine immunization, adding an extra dose of measles/rubella vaccine in the childhood immunization schedule and conducting a one-time mass immunization campaign."

The rubella vaccination is administered free of charge at fixed and temporary immunization posts by trained and experienced health staff. The objective of the Ministry of Health is to reach at least 95 per cent of children within the target groups.

"International partners are satisfied with the quality of the cold chain and safe injection practice in Kyrgyzstan and have trained health workers on different aspects of immunization," said Dr Sergei Deshevoi, Medical Officer with the European Regional Office of the World Health Organisation. "WHO and partners will conduct a safe immunization campaign against measles and rubella and will ensure that the campaign contributes significantly to sustaining safe immunization services in the country."

As part of their long-term immunization goal, the Government of Kyrgyzstan has committed to introduce and fund the additional measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccination in their routine immunization schedule starting in 2002. This will be the first time that rubella will be included in the routine immunization in the country.

"The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is very pleased to be a partner in this new initiative to prevent measles and rubella in Central Asia," said Dr. Stephen Cochi, Director of the Global Immunization Division at CDC. "This is a major step forward in the worldwide fight against these two deadly diseases."

UNICEF and WHO have jointly developed a strategy to reduce the number of measles deaths by half by 2005 and also to reduce morbidity from rubella. The plan encourages countries to seize the opportunity to eliminate rubella through the use of measles-rubella (MR) or measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccines in their childhood immunization programmes.

Bellamy urges all countries to step up their immunization programmes to give children a good start in life. "Immunization is a key ingredient in helping children reach the highest attainable standard of health," she said. " Immunization is the right of every child."

For additional information, please contact:

Mohammad Jalloh, UNICEF Media, New York (212) 326 7516
e-mail: mjalloh@unicef.org

More on CDC website: http://www.cdc.gov/nip/publications/pink/rubella.pdf


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