The World Health Organization (WHO) has announced last week that the 45 countries that make up the Americas region have completely eliminated rubella, also known as German measles, making the condition the third vaccine-preventable disease to be eradicated from the region after smallpox and polio.

The United Nations agency made the announcement at a meeting with the Pan American Health Organization. PAHO/WHO Director Carissa Etienne said that the elimination of the disease from the Americas is considered a historic achievement.

"Ours was the first region to eradicate smallpox, the first to eliminate polio, and now the first to eliminate rubella," Etienne said. "All four achievements prove the value of immunization and how important it is to make vaccines available even to the remotest corners of our hemisphere."

If history is a guide, the elimination of rubella from the Americas shows the possibility of the disease being eradicated worldwide. Prior to widespread vaccination, the disease, which causes mild symptoms in children and adult but could lead to birth defects and even fetal death when it strikes during pregnancy, affected thousands annually in South America, North America and Central America.

Between 1964 and 1965 before the vaccine against the disease was developed, a rubella epidemic infected 12.5 million. It also resulted in twenty thousand children being born with Congenital Rubella Syndrome (CRS): 1,800 were mentally retarded, 3,500 were born blind and 11,000 were deaf. More than 2,000 neonatal deaths were likewise recorded and there were 11,000 abortions.

The rubella vaccine was first licensed in 1969 and it was proven to be 95 percent effective in preventing infection. In 1994, member countries of the Pan American Health Organization aimed to eliminate measles from the Americas by 2000. The goal for rubella and CRS, on the other hand was 2010.

With mass vaccination and awareness campaigns, rubella became effectively eliminated from the U.S. around 2002. Rubella vaccination is part of the childhood immunization schedule in the U.S.

The last known cases of endemic rubella as well as of CRS happened in Argentina and Brazil in 2009. Health experts already consider a disease eradicated from a region when there are no longer endemic cases reported for a minimum of three years.

As of 2012, about 100,000 cases of Rubella were reported in WHO's member states albeit it is possible that the actual number of cases is much higher. The number of CRS cases annually is over 100,000.

Photo: Frankieleon | Flickr 

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