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It’s Official: Rubella Has Been Eradicated From the Americas

Health officials confirm that rubella no longer originates in North or South America

(BRIAN SNYDER/Reuters/Corbis)
smithsonian.com

Rubella is a viral infection that causes birth defects, deafness and permanent brain damage when growing fetuses are exposed. It also has no cure. But there’s some hope in the fight against the once-prevalent disease — officials have announced that rubella, which affects up to 100,000 babies worldwide each year, has been eradicated in the Americas.

Donald G. McNeil, Jr. of The New York Times reports that the Americas are now the the first World Health Organization-designated region to eradicate the disease due to widespread use of the MMR, or measles-mumps-rubella, vaccine. The announcement came after the Pan American Health Organization and other public health officials surveyed millions of health records and checked 1.3 million communities. In addition, reports McNeil, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention verified that all known cases of the virus in the Americas were caused by non-domestic strains.

McNeil reports that the disease’s eradication came after a widespread campaign by the Pan American Health Organization that began in 2003. Though the vaccine has been available since 1969, he reports, many Caribbean men missed the vaccine due to early efforts to vaccinate only the highest-risk groups. Rubella was officially announced eradicated in the United States in 2005.

But why, if they're part of the same vaccine, is rubella gone, while measles still gives us trouble? The World Health Organization recently announce that efforts to eradicate measles have stalled. The answer lies in the diseases themselves. Paul Offit, an infectious disease specialist at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, tells US News and World Report’s Kimberly Leonard that measles is more contagious than rubella or mumps—and that while measles requires 94 percent of people to be vaccinated to achieve herd immunity, rubella only requires an 85 percent vaccination rate.

Still, Offitt told Leonard, it’s important to realize that eradication simply means the disease does not originate in a target area — not that the disease has been eliminated for good or that vaccination is no longer necessary. “There’s no person-to-person spread in American children,” Offit tells Leonard. “It doesn’t mean the disease doesn’t come into the country.”

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