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Measles in Sri Lanka: A Thing of the Past

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. But, this disease still affects countries across the globe. However, Sri Lanka officially eradicated measles in 2016.

Despite the availability of a measles vaccine since the 1960s, measles continues to afflict the world’s impoverished. 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, and as a result, it has been difficult for some children to obtain the two vaccine doses necessary to achieve immunity 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 Southeast Asia. Recently, the 11 member countries of the region have pushed back the goal until 2023.

Sri Lanka’s Eradication of Measles

One Southeast 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 significantly effective at combating disease and promoting positive health outcomes. This strong health care system, combined with a robust vaccination program and effective monitoring, has made measles in Sri Lanka a thing of the past.

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

Sri Lanka was able to increase vaccination rates to more than 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 to protect the entire population. This safeguards those who are vaccinated and those who may not be able to receive vaccinations due to lack of medical access or adverse health effects.

Because of these efforts, the WHO officially considers measles eradicated in Sri Lanka. The last indigenous case of measles in Sri Lanka occurred in May 2016. Although Sri Lanka has noted isolated cases since then, experts indicate that the cases came from outside of the nation’s borders. Fortunately, the government was able to promptly identify and investigate these incidents.

Cases of measles in Sri Lanka have fallen faster than in other Southeast Asian nations —  only five of 11 countries have fully eradicated measles. The region is, however, making some progress. Between 2014 and 2017, measles-related deaths in Southeast Asia dropped by 23%.

Thomas Gill
Photo: Flickr