WHO calls upon countries in South-East Asia to take 'urgent' steps to eliminate measles

India reported a measles outbreak last year. Till November, India recorded 12,773 cases of measles, making it the largest outbreak, as per WHO.
World Health Organisation (Photo | AP)
World Health Organisation (Photo | AP)

NEW DELHI: The World Health Organisation (WHO) on Friday called on countries to take urgent and accelerated measures against measles which is on the rise with nearly nine million children having missed vaccination against the killer disease in the last two years. 

India reported a measles outbreak last year. Till November, India recorded 12,773 cases of measles, making it the largest outbreak, as per WHO. Before the pandemic, 11 countries in the Southeast Asia region had aimed to eliminate measles by 2020. Now, the next deadline India has set is 2023.

Dr Poonam Khetrapal Singh, Regional Director, WHO South-East Asia, said, "The strong political commitment, determination, focused and concerted efforts, and community support, that marked our efforts for polio elimination, are now urgently needed to stop and prevent measles outbreaks and accelerate efforts to eliminate the disease."

Speaking on the 12th anniversary of the last case of wild poliovirus in the region, which was reported from Howrah in West Bengal, India, 12 years ago, and sustains its polio-free status, she said between 2014 and 2021, the Region recorded 73 per cent reduction in measles deaths and 64 per cent reduction in measles cases.

Five of the 11 countries in the South-East Asia Region – Bhutan, DPR Korea, Maldives, Sri Lanka and Timor-Leste - have eliminated measles, and two countries - Maldives and Sri Lanka - have eliminated rubella as well.

Dr Khetrapal said as the pandemic hit, measles vaccination coverage, which had reached an all-time high of 94 per cent coverage for the first dose and 83 per cent coverage for the second dose by 2019, declined to 86 per cent and 78 per cent respectively in 2021, leaving nine million children unvaccinated for measles and around 5.3 million children partially vaccinated against this highly infectious and killer disease.

“The decline in vaccine coverage, and interruptions and delays in immunization and surveillance activities due to COVID-19, leaves the Region susceptible to large outbreaks, and off track for the 2023 target of measles and rubella elimination,” the Regional Director said.

Implementation of key elimination strategies at an accelerated pace is the need of the hour, she said.

“We need to urgently close immunity gaps with tailored approaches for the highest impact, such as through catch-up campaigns, and strengthening routine immunization with better microplanning,” she said.

The countries must also ensure adequate investment in laboratory-supported case-based surveillance for timely detection of measles cases and outbreaks, to facilitate an appropriate response, she said.

In November 2022, Indonesia reported an outbreak of circulating vaccine-derived poliovirus type 2 from Aceh province. The country conducted a timely mass vaccination campaign with the novel oral polio vaccine type 2, targeting 1.2 million children under 13 years of age in the province.

In 2022, the overall surveillance indicators for polio in the Region were maintained above globally recommended standards.  More than 63,000 stool specimens were tested in the polio laboratories of the South-East Asia Region in 2022 to detect any poliovirus. More than 2200 sewage samples were tested for polioviruses in the Region as a part of environmental surveillance that is being conducted through 91 sites in six countries of the Region.

To maintain population immunity against polioviruses all countries in the Region are currently providing bivalent oral polio vaccine along with inactivated polio vaccine in their national immunization programmes. Mass vaccination campaigns against polio were conducted in selected countries during 2021 and 2022 and more than 220 million children were provided additional doses of oral polio vaccine through these campaigns during each of the past two years.

“All countries have been taking several initiatives to revive and resume childhood immunization coverage and surveillance activities that were affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. These efforts need to be sustained and further strengthened to maintain the polio-free status of the Region and protect children against deadly and debilitating vaccine-preventable diseases,” Dr Khetrapal Singh said.

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