New Delhi: The World Health Organization ,WHO) has called upon countries in the South-East Asia Region 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. This comes against the backdrop of the 12th anniversary of the last case of wild polio virus In region.
Speaking on the dire urgency to address the issue said Dr Poonam Khetrapal Singh, Regional Director, WHO South-East Asia, “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.”
Measles and rubella elimination is a flagship priority program of the WHO South-East Asia Region. According to the WHO, between 2014 and 2021, the region recorded a 73 percent reduction in measles deaths and a 64 percent reduction in measles cases. Five of the 11 countries in the South-East Asia Region including Bhutan, DPR Korea, Maldives, Sri Lanka, and Timor-Leste have eliminated measles, and two countries, Maldives and Sri Lanka, have eliminated rubella as well. Countries have been administering two doses of measles vaccine as part of their childhood immunization program and some have rolled out mass vaccination campaigns.
As the pandemic hit, measles vaccination coverage, which had reached an all-time high of 94 percent coverage for the first dose and 83 percent coverage for the second dose by 2019, declined to 86 percent and 78 percent 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,” Dr Khetrapal Singh said.
Highlighting the importance of the implementation of key elimination strategies at an accelerated pace as the need of the hour, Dr Khetrapal Singh said, “We need to urgently close immunity gaps with tailored approaches for the highest impact, such as through catch-up campaigns, and strengthen routine immunization with better microplanning.”
“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 added.
The WHO’s South-East Asia Regional Director also commended countries in the region for their continued efforts against polio. The region reported its last case of wild poliovirus from Howrah, West Bengal, India, 12 years ago, and maintains its polio-free status.
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 younger than 13 years of age in the province.
According to WHO estimates, the region’s overall surveillance indicators for polio remained above the globally recommended standards in 2022. More than 63,000 stool specimens were tested in the polio laboratories of the South-East Asia Region during 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 received 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 polio-free status of the Region and protect children against deadly and debilitating vaccine preventable diseases,” Dr Singh concluded.