An inspiring success story | Daily News

An inspiring success story

For Sri Lankans wilting under the strain of the hitherto unknown COVID-19 pandemic threat the news earlier this week that the country has fully eliminated the threat of two other communicable diseases, Rubella (German Measles) and Measles, is a morale-booster. The nation’s medical personnel, now fighting a far greater health threat, can pat themselves on the back for their success with these two viral diseases.

The World Health Organisation, currently leading the world in the fight against COVID-19, has congratulated Sri Lanka for her success with the two measles-type illnesses. The WHO’s regional office in New Delhi last week announced that Sri Lanka and The Maldives had both eliminated the twin threats of Measles and Rubella a full two-three years ahead of the target date of 2023 that had been set for the WHO’s South-East Asia region to which this country belongs.

Rubella, as a disease, is known to have been around in many parts of the world since the virus was first identified in the mid 18th century by a trio of German medical scientists. At that time, due to the nationality of the researchers who identified it as a distinct disease, it was popularly called ‘German Measles’. In the late 19th century, an army doctor in the occupying colonial British forces in India coined the name ‘Rubella’, when describing an outbreak of the virus in Sub-Continent, using the word “rubella” from the Latin word meaning “little red”.

The most common first symptom of Rubella is a rash of red coloured skin spots usually first on the face and then spreading elsewhere on the body. While for most people the disease remains only as a mild form of measles with very similar symptoms, Rubella has been found to be fatal to human fetuses during pregnancy or, at least, causing severe disabilities to the fetus while in the womb.

However, in 1969, a vaccine was developed by Maurice Hilleman and Dr. Stanley Plotkin (who, incidentally, is now in the forefront of Coronavirus vaccine research at a vibrant 88) and its successful global distribution with WHO facilitation has now resulted in a growing number of countries and regions being able to completely eradicate the disease. Cuba was among the earliest to achieve this milestone, followed by the rest of the American continent.

Even in the 1990s, some of the more developed nations had to cope with Rubella outbreaks. These epidemics reportedly severely hit pregnant women causing tens of thousands of stillbirths, miscarriages and fetal disabilities. The complications for pregnancy from Rubella infection are more common in Africa and Southeast Asia at a rate of 121 per 100,000 live births compared to just 2 per 100,000 live births in the Americas and Europe.

Rubella outbreaks occurred in Sri Lanka in 1994 and 1995. The vaccine was introduced in 1996 with a special focus on women of reproductive age in order to protect infants. Subsequent outbreaks occurred here in the 2009-2011 period peaking with 416 cases in 2011. According to Health Ministry data, the last case of Measles occurred in 2016 and of Rubella in 2017. Maldives reported its last endemic case of Measles in 2009 and of Rubella in October 2015.

WHO formally declares a country free of measles and rubella when there is no evidence of endemic transmission of the viruses for over three years under a well-performing surveillance system. The announcement was made at the recent fifth meeting of the WHO’s South-East Asia Regional Verification Commission for Measles and Rubella Elimination.

However, in the face of the current huge global challenge of the COVID-19 pandemic, the WHO is anxious that those countries that have brought Measles and Rubella under control will not be distracted by the new health threat. It is hoped that these countries will continue to sustain the preventive and monitoring systems now in place against the other two diseases.

It is important that Sri Lankans appreciate the complex and comprehensive scientific systems that have been painstakingly put in place and, the diligent health practices that are maintained, in order to successfully bring the Measles and Rubella diseases under control. At least humanity today enjoys the benefit of the anti-Measles and anti-Rubella vaccines that have been developed with much research and innovation.

Today, the world is besieged by the COVID-19 pandemic with some of the richest countries stumbling in their efforts to manage this deadly disease for which there is no cure and no vaccine. The global experience of the last six months has clearly shown that it is only when the scientific evidence and data, as well as the scientific expertise, is heeded and, the recommended counter-measures diligently observed, that countries can successfully keep the pandemic at bay until a viable vaccine is found. We must hope that we can discipline ourselves and deal with COVID-19 in the same way we have dealt with Measles and Rubella.

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