While developed nations like the United States and France are struggling with the resurgence of measles, Sri Lanka has defied global trends by successfully eliminating the disease. The World Health Organization (WHO) declared the country measles-free on Tuesday.
Sri Lanka’s last home-grown case of the infectious disease was reported in May 2016, according to WHO. The sporadic cases of the disease registered since then have all been imported from abroad, quickly detected, investigated, and treated.
"Sri Lanka's achievement comes at a time when globally measles cases are increasing," Dr. Poonam Khetrapal Singh, regional director of WHO South-East Asia, said in a statement. "The country's success demonstrates its commitment, and the determination of its health workforce and parents to protect children against measles."
Sri Lanka is now the fifth country in Southeast Asia — following Bhutan, Maldives, Nepal and Timor-Leste — to have eliminated the disease. In other parts of the world, however, the numbers of measles cases being seen are alarmingly higher than previous years.
Globally, 98 countries reported having more cases of measles in 2018 than in 2017, a reversal of the progress made against preventable disease. Ten countries alone — including Ukraine, Brazil, and France — are responsible for more than 74% of the total increase.
Measles is a serious respiratory disease that causes a rash and fever — and, if untreated, can be fatal. The best way to protect children against measles is to ensure they are vaccinated on time. The MMR (measles, mumps, and rubella) shot safely and effectively prevents measles, and doctors recommend children receive two doses of the vaccine.
WHO attributed Sri Lanka’s successful elimination of the disease to the island nation’s dedicated efforts to ensure every child receives both vaccine doses on time as part of its national immunization program.
Globally, coverage for the first dose of the vaccine has remained stagnant at 85%, while only 67% of children receive the second dose. But in Sri Lanka, coverage for both doses has significantly risen to above 95%, due to its massive campaigning efforts.
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The country regularly carries out mass vaccination campaigns to reach even the small pockets of unimmunized children and also has strong measles surveillance in place. But around the world, there has been an increasing resistance to vaccinations, fueled by misinformation, often spread on social media.
In the US, where measles was declared eliminated in 2000, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported on Monday that the number of measles cases this year has reached 1,109 across 28 states — the highest number of cases since 1992. In Texas, more than 45,000 children opted out of their school vaccinations as of last fall, which experts said contributed to a measles outbreak.
The hesitation to vaccinate children mostly stems fear stoked by the anti-vaxxers movement, which has quickly spread misinformation about the safety of vaccines across the world. Anti-vaxxers believe that vaccinations cause autism and other brain disorders, despite no scientific evidence supporting these theories. These beliefs have led many parents to refuse vaccines for their children, which doesn’t just risk the health of those children, but all those they may come into contact with as well.
“The reduced number of children being vaccinated in the US isn’t just a problem for those children,” said Author S. Jay Olshansky, a professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of Illinois at Chicago School of Public Health. “It’s a problem for the country because it lowers herd immunity.”
“It is ironic that in the anti-vaccination community, the very people who are denying protection to their children by foregoing vaccination are healthy and alive today because they, and possibly their parents, were vaccinated,” Olshansky said.