April 25 marked the beginning of the 13th annual Vaccination Week in the Americas and there was cause for celebration: The Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) seized the moment to announce the complete eradication of rubella in the Western Hemisphere. A 15-year campaign to vaccinate hundreds of millions of people of all ages in North, Central, and South America is being hailed as “one of the most important Pan American public health achievements of the 21st century,” according to PAHO director, Dr. Carissa Etienne.
Etienne said further, "Ours was the first region to eradicate smallpox (1971), the first to eliminate polio (1994), 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.” The fourth achievement is the elimination of congenital rubella syndrome (CRS), which is a spectrum of birth defects that babies are at risk for if their mother contracts rubella during pregnancy.
Rubella Symptoms and Transmission
Rubella, a viral infection also known as German measles and three-day measles, usually produces in young children mild symptoms of rash and low fever that last only two or three days but symptoms can be serious for infants and toddlers. Older children may experience cold-like symptoms and swollen glands. Young women often suffer aching joints. Approximately half of all people with the infection exhibit no symptoms at all.
The infection is passed person to person by sneezing and coughing. Although rubella is often called a form of measles, the rubella and measles viruses are two entirely separate organisms.
Rubella, Pregnancy, and CRS
The disease becomes very dangerous, however, when a pregnant woman contracts it. Her baby’s risk of fetal damage is approximately 20% when mom gets rubella in early pregnancy. Common fetal complications include mental retardation, liver and/or spleen damage, heart defects, cataracts, and deafness. Babies born with these birth defects are diagnosed with CRS.
The PAHO Vaccination Campaign
The PAHO vaccination campaign encompassed 45 countries and territories in the Western Hemisphere during which the MMR vaccine (measles, mumps, and rubella) was administered to the vast majority of the population to stop the spread of the disease. Routine vaccination schedules for babies and small children were implemented to systematically protect future generations from diseases.
Rubella By the Numbers
Before the vaccination campaign, as many as 20,000 children were born with CRS each year in the Caribbean and Latin America. As recently as 1997, there were more than 158,000 rubella cases reported in these regions alone.
The last major rubella outbreak in the United States occurred in 1964 and 1965. During that outbreak, 20,000 babies were born with CRS.
Rubella Around the Globe
The rubella virus itself has not been eliminated on a global scale at this time. Approximately 120,000 babies around the world still become seriously ill with rubella every year, with most cases occurring in Southeast Asia and Africa. Unvaccinated travelers coming from these regions can still bring the virus with them to the Western Hemisphere but the likelihood of an outbreak in the Americas is highly unlikely at this time due to the success of the PAHO’s widespread vaccination campaign.
- "Americas region is declared the world's first to eliminate rubella." Pan American Health Organization. World Health Organization, 29 Apr. 2015. Web. 6 May 2015.
- "Rubella (German Measles, Three-Day Measles)." Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. US Department of Health & Human Services, 4 May 2015. Web. 6 May 2015.