Rubella, also known as German measles, a disease considered a grave risk to unborn children, has been eliminated from the Americas, a scientific panel says.

Medical experts say the successful elimination of the contagious viral disease is a historic achievement for North and South America, on a level with the elimination of smallpox in 1971 and polio in 1994.

With the success of mass vaccination programs, the last endemic cases of rubella in the Americas were in Brazil and Argentina in 2009.

With no cases declared during five consecutive years, the Americas have been declared free of the rubella virus, says Carissa Etienne, head of the Pan-American Health Organization, a part of the World Health Organization.

"The fight against rubella has taken more than 15 years," she says. "But it has paid off with what I believe will be one of the most important pan-American public health achievements of the 21st century."

Symptoms of the disease can be mild for most people — a rash, low-grade fever, sore or aching joints, and headaches — but can be dangerous for unborn children if the mother is infected during the first trimester of pregnancy.

The result can be what it known as congenital rubella syndrome, or CRS, which can involve autism, deafness, blindness and cardiac defects.

In a major outbreak in 1964, more than 20,000 children born in the United States were diagnosed with CRS.

The virus was eradicated in the U.S. by 2004.

Although declared eradicated in the Americas, rubella remains a serious concern in other regions of the globe, with around 120,000 new cases seen annually.

The Americas and Europe are the only two regions that have made elimination of the disease an official goal, says Dr. Susan E. Reef, team leader for rubella in the Global Immunization Division of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"Now that we have achieved this goal," she says, "the next step is to continue to maintain it."

As with regular measles, there is no cure for rubella, but it can be controlled with an extremely effective vaccine.

In the United States, that vaccine is usually administered in a single injection along with two other vaccines, a childhood immunization known as MMR, for measles, mumps and rubella.

Measles were eliminated in the Americas in 2002, but a rise of the number of children unvaccinated over parents' fears of autism from the MMR vaccination has allowed imported cases to cause outbreaks in the U.S., such as the one traced to Disneyland in California in late 2014.

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