The Maldives and Sri Lanka have become the first two countries in the region to have eliminated both measles and rubella ahead of the 2023 deadline, said the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) South East Asian Region (SEAR) office.

A country is verified as having eliminated measles and rubella when there is no evidence of endemic transmission of the respective viruses for over three years in the presence of a well performing surveillance system.

The announcement was made after the fifth meeting of the SEAR Verification Commission for Measles and Rubella Elimination. The Commission comprises 11 independent international experts in the fields of epidemiology, virology and public health.

The Maldives reported its last endemic case of measles in 2009 and of rubella in October 2015, while Sri Lanka reported the last endemic case of measles in May 2016 and of rubella in March 2017.

Coming at a time when the world is grappling with the Covid-19 pandemic, this success is encouraging and demonstrates the importance of joint efforts, said Poonam Khetrapal Singh, Regional Director, WHO (SEAR), commending the countries on their 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.

Vaccine disruptions

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 immunisation coverage and surveillance have been impacted. However, countries in WHO (SEAR) have been making concerted efforts to resume immunisation and surveillance activities and plug gaps that have arisen due to the pandemic, the WHO said.

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 immunisation programme. First-dose coverage of the measles-containing vaccine is now 88 per cent and the second-dose coverage 76 per cent, the WHO added.

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.

“Now more than ever, we must pull together to realise 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,” Singh said.

Member countries of WHO SEAR had, last September, set 2023 as the target for the elimination of measles and rubella, revising the goal of the flagship programme that since 2014 had focussed on measles elimination and rubella control.

Bhutan, DPR Korea and Timor-Leste are other countries in the region have eliminated measles.