New Delhi: India and 10 other South-East Asian countries on Friday committed themselves to a 2020 deadline for the eradication of measles, which has received renewed global attention after outbreaks of the highly contagious disease in the US and Europe.
A resolution to that effect was approved on Friday at the 69th session of the World Health Organisation’s Regional Committee for South-East Asia in New Delhi.
The countries also pledged to take measures to control rubella, also known as German measles, and congenital rubella syndrome (CRS), which is passed on to the developing foetus of pregnant women who contract rubella. These commitments follow a February 2013 regional consultation.
At least 70,700 children died of measles in the region in 2011, accounting for about 45% of global measles deaths. India alone contributed more than one-third of all childhood measles deaths worldwide in 2011. Around 56,000 measles deaths were reported in India that year.
“An estimated 8 million children are not protected against measles in WHO’s South-East Asia Region. The measles and rubella vaccines are safe, effective and inexpensive. The administration of a combined measles rubella vaccine can eliminate both diseases cost effectively,” said Samlee Plianbangchang, WHO’s regional director for South-East Asia.
“Measles outbreaks are a major development obstacle. I believe that with political will and a strong focus on the vulnerable and hard-to-reach populations, we can eliminate measles and control rubella in the South-East Asia Region by 2020”, he added.
Outbreaks of measles have been reported, mainly among unimmunized children, in the US and Europe since 2011 although it had been thought that the disease had been eliminated there.
The WHO recommends two doses of vaccine, but an estimated 20 million children worldwide did not receive the first dose in 2011, leaving them vulnerable to the virus. More than half of these children lived in five countries—the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, India, Nigeria and Pakistan.
“To reach the target, countries will need to achieve 95% population immunity against measles and rubella within each district by strengthening routine immunization or supplemental campaigns when and where needed,” WHO said in an advisory on Friday.
It added that the countries will need to develop and sustain a sensitive and timely case-based measles and rubella, CRS surveillance system, and that the regional network of accredited measles and rubella laboratories needs to be expanded.
Strategic plans are being developed by all countries in the region, and the UN agency estimates that $800 million is needed to achieve the goal of eliminating measles by 2020. “We have demonstrated that polio eradication is possible even under challenging circumstances. Lessons learnt from that historic achievement can play a critical role in achieving measles elimination,” said Plianbangchang.
Significant progress has been made toward this. Between 2000 and 2011, countries of the region have already achieved a 63% decline in the measles incidence rate from 69.9 per million people to 25 per million population.
“This target given by WHO is achievable if the government uses its resources in a better manner and involves more pediatricians in its advocacy of immunization,” said C.P. Bansal, president of the Indian Academy of Paediatrics. “Although there has been improvement in India’s immunization efforts, its current reach is not commendable.”