Measles in Sri Lanka: a Thing of the PastAt a time when the world is grappling with the COVID-19 pandemic, other potentially lethal diseases can go overlooked. Measles is a disease that has had the status of “eliminated” in the United States for 20 years. This disease still affects countries across the globe. However, Sri Lanka has eradicated measles.

Despite having a vaccine since the 1960s, measles continues to afflict the world’s poor. Annual outbreaks in low- and middle-income countries have a severe and pronounced effect on their health systems. In 2018, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 140,000 people died of measles globally.

COVID-19 Pandemic’s Effects on Measles

COVID-19 has made the possibility of wider measles outbreaks more likely. The pandemic has constrained health systems. As a result, it has been hard for some children to get the two vaccine doses they needed in order to be immune to measles. However, the international community is coming together to solve the problem. The WHO initially set a target of 2020 for eradicating measles in South-East Asia. Recently, the 11 member countries of the region have pushed back the goal until 2023.

Sri Lanka’s Eradication of Measles

One South-East Asian country that has already seen success in eradicating measles is Sri Lanka. A small island nation in the Indian Ocean, Sri Lanka’s health infrastructure is pretty effective at combating disease and promoting health outcomes. This strong healthcare system, combined with a robust vaccination program and effective monitoring, made measles in Sri Lanka a thing of the past.

In a large outbreak of measles in 1999 and 2000, 15,000 people contracted the disease. Following this outbreak, the government decided to implement a two-dose vaccine schedule throughout the country. In order to facilitate access to vaccines, early campaigns partnered with non-governmental organizations. In 2004, The Red Cross assisted the Sri Lankan government in messaging, training volunteers and administering vaccines.

Sri Lanka was able to increase vaccination rates to over 95%. This figure is important because health experts estimate that vaccinations need to be at least that high in order to create “herd immunity.” Herd immunity is the concept that high levels of vaccination mean that enough people are immune to the disease, that even small outbreaks can spread. This protects those who are vaccinated and those who may not be able to be vaccinated due to lack of medical access or adverse health effects.

Because of these efforts, measles is officially considered eradicated in the country. In addition, the last indigenous case of measles in Sri Lanka occurred in May of 2016. Although there were some smaller outbreaks since then, they have mostly been cases contracted abroad, or from people mitigating into Sri Lanka. Fortunately, the government was able to slow these outbreaks.

Cases of measles in Sri Lanka have fallen faster than they have in the rest of South-East Asia, where only 5 of 11 countries have fully eradicated measles. The region is, however, making some progress. Between 2014 and 2017, deaths in South-East Asia have dropped by 23%.

Thomas Gill

Photo: Flickr