By Opija Raduk

Sri Lanka has eliminated measles, interrupting transmission of the indigenous virus that causes the killer childhood disease, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced yesterday.

According to WHO, an independent verification committee reviewed in detail all data and ongoing efforts for measles elimination in the island nation and concluded that Sri Lanka has stopped transmission of indigenous measles virus.

“Sri Lanka’s achievement comes at a time when globally measles cases are increasing. The country’s success demonstrates its commitment, and the determination of its health workforce and parents to protect children against measles,” says Dr Poonam Khetrapal Singh, Regional Director WHO South-East Asia.

The country reported its last case of measles caused by an indigenous virus in May 2016. Sporadic cases reported in the last three years have all been importations that were quickly detected, investigated and rapidly responded to.

Sri Lankan doctors say that the country’s success follows its persistent efforts to ensure maximum coverage with two doses of measles and rubella vaccines being provided in the childhood immunisation programme.

The vaccination coverage in the country has been consistently high, over 95 percent, with both the first and second dose of measles and rubella vaccine provided to children under the routine immunization programme.

Additionally, mass vaccination campaigns with a measles-rubella vaccine have been held periodically to plug the immunization gaps, the last one held in 2014.

The country has a strong surveillance system and all vaccine-preventable diseases are an integral part of the communicable disease surveillance system.

“The risk of importations of measles virus from countries near and far will remain, specially from those that have significant population movement with Sri Lanka. Further strengthening immunity of the vulnerable population, capacities to detect and readiness to respond to measles virus both at the national and sub-national levels, would be the key to the country’s continued measles-free status in the coming years,” says Khetrapal.

The WHO says that Sri Lanka is the fourth country in WHO South-East Asia Region, after Bhutan, Maldives and Timor-Leste, to eliminate measles and control rubella, a flagship priority programme of WHO in the Region, ahead of the 2020 regional target.

Last year Sri Lanka achieved rubella control, along with five other countries, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Maldives, Nepal and Timor-Leste. While measles is a major childhood killer disease, rubella causes irreversible deformities and disabilities in new-borns.

In spite of the good progress, challenges remain in reaching the most vulnerable and hard to reach population and the underserved. Of the 37 million children born in the region every year, 11 percent are missing out on basic vaccines during their first year of life.

Calling upon member countries to heighten vigilance, and further accelerate immunization coverage, Dr Khetrapal, adds, “moving forward, we must harness this momentum to sustain our achievements, accelerate progress, and make the most of innovative technologies and interventions”.

The WHO South-East Asia Region has 11 countries and is home to 25 percent of the global population. This region has been accelerating efforts to eliminate measles and control rubella by also leveraging reach and support of existing networks such as of the polio eradication programme.

Elimination of measles is achieved when a country interrupts transmission of indigenous virus for three years.

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