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Kids help fight 'the disease of the wind'

Youths with the American Red Cross' Tampa Bay chapter raise more than $2,300 to inoculate children in Ghana against measles.

By JANEL STEPHENS
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 9, 2003


ST. PETERSBURG -- In Africa, they call measles "the disease of the wind."

Enabled by overcrowded schools, marketplaces and homes, the virus kills 450,000 African children each year, according to the American Red Cross.

When young people with the organization's Tampa Bay chapter learned of the disease's prevalence in Africa, they wanted to help.

"As a youth program, we've never really taken a part in international services," said Caitie Cihak, 18. "But we realized that there's a really great need to vaccinate the children in Africa."

Through the Measles Initiative, about 40 young people raised more than $2,300 to inoculate children in Ghana.

They had a spaghetti dinner and asked their peers for donations at Boca Ciega High School, Sexton Elementary School and Baypoint Middle School. Their slogan was "Immunization with Your Donation."

"We told them they could donate 80 cents of snack money and save a life," said Angela Azevedo, 18, president of the Red Cross chapter at Boca Ciega High.

That's how much it costs to vaccinate a child.

"I think that they were pretty amazed that it would cost so little to help prevent someone from dying," said Niki Paksoy, the local Red Cross' director of marketing and public affairs.

Since the international Measles Initiative began a year ago, 8.7-million children have been vaccinated in Ghana, and 68-million have been vaccinated throughout the continent.

"In Africa, it's fatal with young children," said Julie Irby, from Red Cross headquarters in Washington, D.C. "The most susceptible are children under 5 because their immune systems haven't fully developed."

Oftentimes, older siblings transmit the virus to younger siblings at home, where they share the same beds, she said. Measles weakens the immune system further, allowing children to be vulnerable to complications such as blindness, diarrhea and severe malnutrition.

"It's also the leading killer of children with HIV and AIDS," Irby said.

"The one thing that we knew we could actually save a lot of lives and prevent was measles," Irby said. "Globally every year, nearly 1-million children die because of the measles."

The initiative works like this: Vaccines are purchased in Spain and France for 15 cents and brought into Africa through UNICEF. The local ministries of health determine who gets vaccinated, usually children from nine months to 15 years old. A follow-up vaccination is done a few years later for those who were not vaccinated -- or not yet born -- during the first phase.

"By 2005, the goal is to get 200-million children vaccinated," Irby said.

For more information on the Measles Initiative, visit www.measlesinitiative.org, or call 1-800-HELP-NOW.

-- Information from the Measles Initiative Web site was used in this report.

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