WHO officially declares Sri Lanka filariasis free

Globally, 120 million people are affected with lymphatic filariasis across 71 countries, of which 50% are residing in the WHO South-East Asian Region (SEAR). In May 2016, Sri Lanka and Maldives became the first countries in the WHO South-East Asia Region to be officially declared ‘filariasis free’. Sri Lanka has a long history with Lymphatic Filariasis (LF), the earliest known cases can be traced back to the 4th century B.C. The elimination of the disease in Sri Lanka and Maldives marks a significant achievement in combating neglected tropical diseases in the WHO South-East Asia Region.

Commonly known as elephantiasis, LF occurs when filarial parasites are transmitted to humans through mosquito bites. Infection is usually acquired in childhood causing hidden damage to the lymphatic system. The painful and profoundly disfiguring manifestations of the disease appear much later in life and lead to permanent disability. In addition to the physical suffering caused by symptoms and complications, patients experience severe psychological stress due to the stigma they face for having the disease, their disability-related limitations and the financial burden caused by hospitalizations and treatment.

The Anti Filariasis Campaign (AFC) was established in 1947. Sri Lanka intensified mosquito control efforts; treatment of the infected population, disability prevention and control; and strengthened surveillance in order to stop the spread of infection and alleviate the suffering caused by LF. The rate of disease transmission reduced drastically. The first all-island survey was conducted from 1936–1939. The microfilaria (MF) rate, which gauges the level of LF transmission, was found to be around 20–24%. Due to the sustained efforts of the Anti Filariasis Campaign, supported by WHO and international partners, the MF rate was reduced to 0.03% by 2008, allowing the country to work towards elimination status.

Strong political commitment, dedication of the health workforce and active community participation were some of the key components which led to the elimination of this disease as a public health problem, according to Dr Rajitha Senaratne, Minister of Health. Following the success of the Maldives and Sri Lanka, the number of LF endemic countries working towards elimination in the Region is now reduced to seven (Thailand, Bangladesh, Myanmar, India, Nepal, Indonesia and Timor-Leste).

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