PEABODY, Massachusetts — In a victory over infectious disease, the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) announced the elimination of rubella from the Americas on Wednesday, April 29.
Also known as German measles, rubella is a contagious viral infection that poses serious risk to pregnant women. Once exposed to the virus, women often suffer miscarriage or give birth to children with a severe birth defect known as congenital rubella syndrome (CRS). The condition is characterized by cataracts, deafness, congenital heart defects and other serious symptoms. Those who are in their first and second trimesters are most vulnerable, although the disease presents a risk throughout pregnancy.
The disease is hard to detect because symptoms are typically mild for those who are not pregnant. Before vaccination methods were adopted in the Americas, tens of thousands of children were born with CRS. In a single 1964-65 outbreak in the United States, 20,000 babies were born with defects related to rubella.
The elimination of the disease in the Americas is the result of a nearly 15-year effort by Pan American Health Organization members. PAHO Director Carissa Etienne declared, “the elimination of rubella from the Americas is a historic achievement that reflects the collective will of our region’s countries to work together to achieve ambitious public health milestones.” The announcement comes during Vaccination Week in the Americas, an international health initiative to raise awareness of immunization and increase access to vaccines.
The World Health Organization aims to make 2011-2020 the “Decade of Vaccines”. Dr Margaret Chan, director general of the WHO, stated, “Three years ago, government agreed to a Global Vaccine Action Plan. One of the plan’s targets is to eliminate rubella from two WHO regions by end-2015. I congratulate the Americas Region for being the first region to achieve this.”
Rubella was eliminated through the MMR Vaccine, which also treats mumps and measles. 250 million people were vaccinated between 1998 and 2008 with the help of PAHO’s Revolving Fund for Vaccine Procurement. Although the disease has no cure, the vaccine is effective. The last endemic case of rubella was in 2009, but it is sometimes imported to the Americas from abroad.
Rubella follows smallpox and polio, other diseases first eliminated in the Americas. Smallpox was eliminated in the Americas in 1971 and was eliminated worldwide by 1980. Polio was eliminated in the Americas in 1994, although it still remains present in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Nigeria.
Though eradicated in the Americas, rubella continues to affect roughly 100,000 children in the developing world. The disease can have serious economic consequences, as children born with congenital rubella syndrome require intensive care. CRS is the leading cause of deafblindness in the developing world and often requires mothers to stay home to care for affected children.
– Kevin McLaughlin
Sources: UNICEF, Pan American Health Organization, , New York Times, The Guardian
Photo: The Bump