While Americans don't worry much anymore about measles, thousands of children in Africa continue to die from the disease when it can be prevented with a simple immunization.
To help eradicate the disease, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints announced Wednesday it is donating $3 million to the "Measles Initiative." Established by the American Red Cross, United Nations Foundation, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, United Nations Children's Fund, World Health Organization and Pan American Health Organization, the program is designed to immunize 200 million children and prevent 1.2 million deaths from measles over the next five years.
The LDS funding will provide vaccine for three million children.
LDS Presiding Bishop H. David Burton said children's health has long been of interest to church leaders, who have authorized funding for a variety of orphanages and neonatal resuscitation projects in the past. "We felt it was compatible with what our interests are and what we can do," he said, adding the church is "uniquely qualified to have a number of volunteers and facilities" in African nations.
Such an undertaking requires widespread administrative help. Volunteers will include "local Relief Society sisters and priesthood leaders," who will work with the Red Cross to help facilitate transportation to LDS chapels where the vaccine can be administered by health care workers. "This is an effort that will benefit their communities."
While the monetary donation is substantial, Bishop Burton said, the ground support will be invaluable in helping the Measles Initiative save lives.
The church has had a long-standing relationship with the Red Cross, he said, and the agency approached the church more than a year ago about becoming involved with the vaccination effort. "As we analyzed our major initiatives, we felt it was a good fit for us and we could make a difference, so that made it very appealing." LDS observers have watched the project in action for some time, so there was "lots of due diligence" before the donation was made.
"We're delighted to partner with the Red Cross. Over the years we've done so on a number of projects and we're eager to continue that relationship," he said.
Formal announcement of the donation was made Wednesday night in Washington, D.C., during the premiere of a documentary film on the African measles epidemic, "Disease of the Wind," at the Motion Picture Association of America. The film chronicles the plight of children with measles in Africa as seen through the eyes of eight Los Angeles-area youth and actress Jane Seymour.
Marty Evans, president and CEO of the American Red Cross, said her organization approached the church because of its "significant commitment to ending suffering on a worldwide basis" and because the church has a worldwide network of members and a large interest in Africa.
"We had to 'make our case' if you will, educating and informing their leadership of what we're trying to do." In the past two years, some 80 million children in 16 African nations have been vaccinated, she said. Measles is the leading cause of blindness in Africa and the leading vaccine-preventable cause of death. Some 30 million to 40 million children per year suffer from the disease, making them vulnerable to a host of other health problems.
"For less than $1 to vaccinate one child, this program can stop the disease cold. It can break the infection cycle and actually eradicate it."
Fund-raising will continue on a local level as well, Evans said, noting a local effort through the Salt Lake chapter of the Red Cross to involve young people in the cause. "It resonates with kids when they learn that it takes less than a dollar to vaccinate a child — they spend that on a soda," but are eager to help when they see what a dollar can do, she said.