Western Hemisphere Wipes Out Its Third Virus | KUOW News and Information

Western Hemisphere Wipes Out Its Third Virus

Apr 30, 2015
Originally published on May 4, 2015 8:39 am

It took 15 years and hundreds of millions of vaccines. But North America and South America have officially eradicated rubella, health authorities said Wednesday. Rubella is only the third virus eradicated from people in the Western Hemisphere.

Also known as German measles, rubella causes only a mild illness in children, with a rash and sometimes a fever.

But when pregnant women catch rubella, their babies can develop serious birth defects, like heart problems, blindness and learning disabilities. The virus can also trigger miscarriages early in a pregnancy.

In the early 2000s, the Pan American Health Organization set a goal to eradicate rubella in the Americas by 2010. The last reported regional case occurred in Argentina in 2009, said PAHO's director, Dr. Carissa Etienne, at a news briefing in Washington on Wednesday.

"The fight against rubella has paid off with what I believe will be one of the important Pan American public health achievements of the 21st century," Etienne said.

In other places around the world, about 120,000 babies each year still catch a serious form of rubella, the agency said. Most of these cases occur in Africa and Southeast Asia.

The Americas wiped out rubella with huge vaccination campaigns for teenagers and adults, the PAHO said. Today most babies in the region get a shot before their first birthday, then a second shot before they go to school.

The eradication of rubella doesn't mean we'll never see the virus again in the U.S. People still bring it here from other countries. But it doesn't spread far because so many Americans are vaccinated.

The Americas have led the way when it comes to eradicating diseases. It was the first region in the world to eradicate smallpox in 1971 and then polio in 1994. And the PAHO already has its sights on another target.

"With rubella under our belt, now it's time to roll up our sleeves and finish the job of eliminating measles as well," Etienne said.

PAHO says it hopes to declare the Americas measles-free in the next year or so. The last endemic case was reported back in 2002. But recent outbreaks here in the U.S. and in Brazil have set back the effort.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

It took 15 years and hundreds of millions of vaccines. This week, North and South America have been declared officially free of the childhood disease rubella. As NPR's Michaeleen Doucleff reports, this is only the third human virus eradicated from the two continents.

MICHAELEEN DOUCLEFF, BYLINE: Rubella is also called German measles. In children, it causes only a mild illness with a rash and sometimes a fever. But when pregnant women catch rubella, their babies can develop birth defects, like heart problems, blindness and learning disabilities. Now the director of the Pan American Health Organization, Dr. Carissa Etienne, says the Western Hemisphere is the first region to completely wipe out the rubella virus.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CARISSA ETIENNE: The fight against rubella has paid off with what I believe will be one of the important Pan American public health achievements of the 21st century.

DOUCLEFF: In other places around the world, more than 100,000 babies each year still catch a serious form of rubella. The Americans were able to stop rubella with huge vaccination campaigns for everyone from babies to adults. Now, this doesn't mean we're never going to see rubella again in the U.S. People still bring it here from other countries. But it doesn't usually spread because so many Americans are vaccinated. PAHO's Etienne says the Americas were the first region in the world to eradicate smallpox in 1971, then polio in 1994, and they've already got their sights on another target.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ETIENNE: With rubella under our belt, it is now time to roll up our sleeves and to finish the job of eliminating measles as well.

DOUCLEFF: PAHO says they're close to wiping out measles, but recent outbreaks here in the U.S. and in Brazil have been major setbacks. Michaeleen Doucleff, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.