The Maldives and Sri Lanka were verified for having eliminated rubella, making them the first two countries in WHO South-East Asia Region to achieve measles and rubella elimination ahead of the 2023 target.
“Protecting all children against these killer and debilitating diseases is an important step in our endeavour to achieve healthier population and health for all,” said Dr Poonam Khetrapal Singh, Regional Director, WHO South-East Asia Region, congratulating the Maldives and Sri Lanka on their achievement.
The announcement was made after the fifth meeting of the South-East Asia Regional Verification Commission for Measles and Rubella Elimination, held virtually. The Commission comprises of 11 independent international experts in the fields of epidemiology, virology and public health. A country is verified as having eliminated measles and rubella when there is no evidence of endemic transmission of the measles and rubella viruses for over three years in the presence of a well-performing surveillance system.
The Maldives reported last endemic case of measles in 2009 and of rubella in October 2015, while Sri Lanka reported last endemic case of measles in May 2016 and of rubella in March 2017.
Coming at a time when the entire world is grappling with the COVID-19 pandemic, this success is encouraging and demonstrates the importance of joint efforts, Dr Khetrapal Singh said, lauding the Ministries of Health, health workforce, partners, and most importantly the communities, who together contributed to this public health achievement.
The Regional Director commended Member countries’ efforts to deliver life-saving vaccines to children even while battling the pandemic. “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,” she said.
In a global survey, more than half of all countries reported moderate-to-severe disruptions or a total suspension of vaccination services in March and April. Preliminary information from the Region suggests both immunization coverage and surveillance have been impacted. However, countries in the WHO South-East Asia Region have been making concerted efforts to resume immunization and surveillance activities and plug gaps that have arisen due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
In recent years, all countries in the region introduced two doses of measles-containing vaccine and at least one dose of rubella-containing vaccine in their routine immunization programme. First-dose coverage of measles-containing vaccine is now 88 per cent and the second-dose coverage 76 per cent. Since 2017, nearly 500 million additional children have been vaccinated with measles and rubella-containing vaccine. Surveillance for measles and rubella has been strengthened further.
“We cannot allow for our progress towards measles and rubella elimination to be put on hold or reversed. We must achieve our 2023 target,” the Regional Director said, adding that WHO is committed to supporting Member countries and partners to fully revive immunization and surveillance activities and to refine the strategic, operational and policy guidelines that will facilitate progress towards our goal.
“Now more than ever, we must pull together to realize our vision of a region in which no child suffers or dies from 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,” Dr Khetrapal Singh said.
Member countries of WHO South-East Asia Region had in September last year set 2023 as the target for elimination of measles and rubella, revising the goal of the flagship programme that since 2014 had focused on measles elimination and rubella control.
Bhutan, DPR Korea and Timor-Leste are other countries in the region who have eliminated measles.