The World Health Organization has verified the Maldives and Bhutan as the first countries in Southeast Asia to have eliminated measles ahead of a 2020 regional target.
Commending the “momentous public health achievement,” WHO Regional Director Dr Poonam Khetrapal Singh said both countries have “demonstrated how a highly contagious virus like measles can be eliminated.”
“The strongest political commitment, alongside the concerted efforts of health workers, officials and partners at all levels, has helped achieve this landmark success, which is a boost to the region’s effort to eliminate measles and control rubella,” she said.
“Both countries achieved and maintained high coverage of measles vaccination, despite geographical challenges. They also established strong laboratory-supported surveillance for measles, and have conducted detailed case investigation and tracking, right up to the very last case.”
The Maldives has not reported any case of indigenous measles since 2009. Measles is a highly contagious airborne disease that mainly affects unvaccinated children and young adults. The measles virus affects the respiratory tract and causes a total-body skin rash and flu-like symptoms.
The health authorities carried out a nationwide mass measles and rubella vaccination campaign in late February and early March with the goal of becoming the first country to reach the regional target.
Dr Khetrapal Singh announced the findings and conclusions of the WHO South-East Asia Regional Verification Commission for Measles Elimination and Rubella control on Tuesday.
The Maldives and Bhutan were verified as having interrupted endemic measles virus transmission.
According to the WHO, an estimated 620 000 measles deaths have been averted in 2016 alone following vaccination carried out by Member countries. Nearly 107 million children have been reached with an additional dose of measles vaccine through mass vaccination between 2013 and 2016.
Despite the availability of a safe and cost-effective vaccine, some 134,200 measles deaths were recorded globally in 2015. But measles vaccination reduced the number of deaths by 79 percent worldwide between 2000 and 2015.
An estimated 54,500 lives were lost to measles in the Southeast Asia region in 2015, while approximately 50,000 births were affected by rubella, which causes irreversible birth defects such as deafness and heart disease when transmitted from mother to fetus.
Some 4.7 million children remain unvaccinated annually in the Southeast Asia region.
Most measles-related deaths are caused by complications associated with the disease, including blindness, encephalitis (an infection that causes brain swelling), severe diarrhoea and related dehydration, ear infections, or severe respiratory infections such as pneumonia.