The Americas region has become the first in the world to be declared free of endemic transmission of rubella, a contagious viral disease that can cause multiple birth defects as well as fetal death when contracted by women during pregnancy.

Western hemisphere map Public domain image/ E Pluribus Anthony
Western hemisphere map
Public domain image/ E Pluribus Anthony

This achievement culminates a 15-year effort that involved widespread administration of the vaccine against measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) throughout the Western Hemisphere. The announcement comes as 45 countries and territories of the Americas are participating in the 13th annual Vaccination Week in the Americas (April 25 to May 2).

The declaration of elimination, made by an international expert committee during a meeting at the Pan American Health Organization/World Health Organization (PAHO/WHO) last week, makes rubella and congenital rubella syndrome (CRS) the third and fourth vaccine-preventable diseases to be eliminated from the Americas, following the regional eradication of smallpox in 1971 and the elimination of polio in 1994.

“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,” said PAHO/WHO Director Carissa F. Etienne. “Ours was the first region to eradicate smallpox, the first to eliminate polio, and now the first to eliminate rubella. 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.”

“Three years ago, governments agreed 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,” said Dr Margaret Chan, director general of the World Health Organization.

Rubella, also known as German measles, caused widespread outbreaks throughout the Americas before the introduction of the MMR vaccine. Although the virus usually causes mild or asymptomatic infections in children and adults, when contracted by women early in pregnancy, it can cause miscarriage or CRS, a constellation of birth defects that often includes blindness, deafness, and congenital heart defects. Before mass-scale rubella vaccination, an estimated 16,000 to more than 20,000 children were born with CRS each year in Latin America and the Caribbean, while more than 158,000 rubella cases were reported in 1997 alone. In the United States, 20,000 infants were born with CRS during the last major rubella outbreak (1964-65).