New Delhi: Maldives and Sri Lanka were today 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. Bhutan, DPR Korea and Timor-Leste are other countries in the region who have eliminated measles.

This comes at a time when the entire world is grappling with the COVID-19 pandemic. The success is encouraging and demonstrates the importance of joint efforts put in by the Ministries of Health, health workforce, partners, and most importantly the communities, who together contributed to this public health achievement.

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.

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 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 11 independent international experts in the fields of epidemiology, virology and public health.

“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 Maldives and Sri Lanka on their achievement.

She 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 added.

Maldives reported the 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.

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 South-East Asia Region have been making concerted efforts to resume immunisation 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 immunisation programme. First-dose coverage of measles-containing vaccines is now 88% and the second-dose coverage 76%.  Since 2017, nearly 500 million additional children have been vaccinated with measles and rubella-containing vaccines. 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 immunisation 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 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,” Dr Khetrapal Singh said.