LONDON - Bhutan and the Maldives have eliminated measles, becoming the first countries in their region to eliminate the highly infectious disease that is a major child killer globally, the World Health Organization said Tuesday.
The milestone was reached after no measles cases originating in the Maldives had been recorded since 2009 and none in Bhutan since 2012, the WHO said.
Both countries launched immunization programs about 40 years ago, with mass vaccination of people at high risk.
"The strongest political commitment, alongside concerted efforts of health workers, officials and partners at all levels, has helped achieve this landmark success," Poonam Khetrapal Singh, regional director of WHO Southeast Asia, said in a statement.
The WHO has set a 2020 deadline for the elimination of measles in the 11 countries it categorizes as the Southeast Asia region.
The region has averted an estimated 620,000 measles deaths in 2016 after carrying out vaccinations in the 11 countries, the WHO said.
Nearly 107 million children were reached with an additional dose of measles vaccine in the region between 2013 and 2016, according to the WHO.
Globally, measles remains a leading cause of death among young children in the developing world. The viral disease is spread through coughing and sneezing and can lead to pneumonia, brain inflammation or death.
Last year, the Americas became the first region in the world to be free of measles, but last month an outbreak was reported in the U.S. state of Minnesota.
Gaps in vaccination coverage against measles also have led to several outbreaks of the disease in Europe in the past year, with both children and young adults affected, according to health officials.
The U.N. children's agency said in April that cases of measles had surged in famine-threatened Somalia.