World Health Organisation (WHO) announced on Wednesday that Maldives and Sri Lanka successfully eliminated Rubella, a contagious viral infection also known as German measles.
In a press release, WHO's Regional Office for South East Asia declared that with this development, Maldives and Sri Lanka are the first two countries in the region to eliminate measles and rubella ahead of the 2023 target.
The official announcement came after the fifth meeting of the South-East Asia Regional Verification Commission for Measles and Rubella Elimination. The committee is made up of 11 independent international experts in the fields of epidemiology, virology and public health.
WHO South-East Asia's Regional Director Dr Poonam Khetrapal Singh congratulated Maldives and Sri Lanka for the accomplishment.
“Protecting all children against these killer and debilitating diseases is an important step in our endeavour to achieve healthier population and health for all", she said.
According to WHO, a country must have no evidence of endemic transmission of measles and rubella viruses for more than three years to be verified as having eliminated these diseases.
The last endemic cases of measles and rubella in Maldives were reported in 2009 and October 2015 respectively, and in Sri Lanka in May 2016 and March 2017 respectively.
Maldives was officially declared as measles-free by WHO in June 2017. At that time, Maldives and Bhutan become the first two countries to achieve the target of eradicating measles before 2020 from the South Asia region.
However, the island nation recorded a minor outbreak of measles earlier this year, after eight people tested positive for the disease during January.
The government had mobilised a vaccination and awareness programme to help contain the outbreak. Soon after, in early February, the authorities revealed that 6,000 individuals were vaccinated during the immunisation programme and that no more positive cases had been detected.
Highlighting that the successful elimination of rubella in Maldives and Sri Lanka came amid the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, Dr Khetrapal Singh declared that it demonstrated the importance of joint efforts and hailed the countries' health ministries, health workforce and communities for the achievement amidst disruptions caused by the pandemic.
According to WHO, a global survey showed that over half the countries suffered moderate-to-severe disruptions or complete suspension of vaccination during the months of March and April due to the coronavirus.
Although the pandemic had impacts on both immunisation coverage and surveillance in South East Asia, WHO noted that countries in the region were making concerted efforts to resume immunisation and make up for the disruptions.
“Though mass vaccination activities have been postponed in several countries, it is encouraging to see that efforts are underway to resume them at the soonest", said the Regional Director.
WHO further noted that the immunisation programmes in all countries of South East Asia have introduced two doses of measles vaccine and at least one dose of rubella vaccine in recent years. While the first-dose coverage of measles-containing vaccine is now 88 percent and the second-dose coverage 76 percent, nearly 500 million more children have been vaccinated against measles and rubella since 2017.
“We cannot allow for our progress towards measles and rubella elimination to be put on hold or reversed. We must achieve our 2023 target", stressed Dr Khetrapal Singh.
"Now more than ever, we must pull together to realize our vision of a Region in which no child suffers or dies from a disease as easily prevented as measles; where no pregnant woman loses her unborn baby due to a virus as avoidable as rubella; and where no neonate is born with a heart ailment or loss of hearing owing to a tragedy as needless as in-utero rubella infection".
She asserted WHO's commitment to supporting its member countries in fully reviving immunisation and surveillance efforts, as well as to refine the strategic, operational and policy guidelines to achieve the South Asian region's goal to eliminate measles and rubella by 2023.
The member states of WHO South-East Asia Region set the target to eradicate measles and rubella by 2023 in September 2019. Other countries that have successfully eliminated measles are Bhutan, North Korea and Timor-Leste.