Thanks To Vaccination, Rubella Has Been Eliminated From The Western Hemisphere
Vaccination has eliminated a disease that used to be a serious threat from the Americas.
Health officials are announcing that Rubella, also known as German Measles, has been eliminated from the Western Hemisphere:
Rubella, a disease with terrible consequences for unborn children, has finally been eliminated from the Americas, a scientific panel set up by global health authorities announced Wednesday.
The disease, also known as German measles, once infected millions of people in the Western Hemisphere. In a 1964-65 outbreak in the United States, 11,000 fetuses were miscarried, died in the womb or were aborted, and 20,000 babies were born with defects.
“Although it has taken some 15 years, the fight against rubella has paid off,” said Dr. Carissa F. Etienne, director of the Pan American Health Organization, which made the announcement in conjunction with the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Unicef and the United Nations Foundation. “Now, with rubella under our belt, we need to roll up our sleeves and finish the job of eliminating measles, as well.”
The Americas region is the first World Health Organization region to eliminate rubella. The European region — which includes Eastern Europe, Russia and Central Asia — hopes to follow next.
Some regions are still not close enough to set firm target dates, so there is no chance that the disease will be eliminated worldwide before 2020, said Dr. Susan E. Reef, team lead for rubella at the C.D.C.’s globalimmunization division, who joined in the announcement.
Around the world, about 120,000 children are born each year with severe birth defectsattributed to rubella.
Two other diseases were first eliminated in the Americas: smallpox in 1971, and polio in 1994. Smallpox is now eliminated worldwide.Polio is nearly gone, but has clung on stubbornly for decades; almost all remaining cases originate in Pakistan.
Although rubella usually produces only a relatively mild rash and fever in children and adults, it is devastating to fetuses in the first trimester; many are born deaf, blind from cataracts and with severe permanent brain damage.
The last endemic case in the Americas was confirmed in Argentina in 2009.
It took six more years to declare the disease eliminated because its symptoms are harder to detect than, for example, polio, which causes paralysis, or smallpox or measles, which cause intense, easily diagnosable rashes.
Public health authorities had to review 165 million records and do 1.3 million checks to see if any communities had rubella cases. All recent cases had to be genetically tested at the C.D.C. to confirm that they were caused by known imported strains of the virus, not by quietly circulating domestic ones.
As with measles, there is no cure for rubella, but the disease is prevented by a very effective vaccine. In the United States, the shot usually contains three vaccines and is known as M.M.R., for measles, mumps and rubella.
Although it’s been a long time since Rubella was a public health threat in the United States, there was a time when it was serious and terrifying disease, especially for pregnant women:
The rubella vaccine was first developed in 1969 by Dr. Maurice Hilleman, a prolific vaccine inventor.
In 1964-65, a strain of the virus from Europe caused an epidemic of an estimated 12.5 million cases across the country. Of the 20,000 infected infants born alive, 2,100 died soon after birth, 12,000 were deaf, 3,580 were blind, and 1,800 had permanent mental disabilities.
Perhaps the most famous American rubella victim was the actress Gene Tierney. In 1943, newly pregnant, she volunteered to be in a show at the Hollywood Canteen, a film-industry nightclub for American troops. She caught the disease that night, and her daughter Daria was born weighing only three pounds, deaf, with cataracts and with brain damage so severe that she never learned to speak.
According to Ms. Tierney’s biography, two years later, at a tennis match, she met a fan, a former member of the Marine Corps Women’s Reserve, who said she had slipped out of a rubella quarantine to go to the Canteen that night.
“Everyone told me I shouldn’t go, but I just had to,” Ms. Tierney recalled the woman telling her. “You were always my favorite.”
Ms. Tierney wrote that she was too stunned to answer.
Agatha Christie used that story as a plot device in “The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side.” In it, an actress murders the woman whose thoughtlessness destroyed her child.
The reason that this disease has been eliminated from the Americas, of course, is because of an aggressive vaccination and public health campaign by the World Health Organization and other national and international health organizations. In the United States, vaccination against Rubella is part of the standard block of vaccines that children receive early in life, and over the years officials have worked successfully to spread that program to the rest of the world. This is essentially the same method that has been used to eliminate Polio, Smallpox, and Measles, and it has been proven to work time and again throughout the world. More importantly, the vaccines themselves have been proven to be overwhelmingly safe to administer even to small children.
This report and the news of what can only be called a great public health achievement is somewhat ironic, of course, given the fact we continue to deal with forces that have taken it upon themselves to launch campaigns that can only be described as being designed to scare parents out of vaccinating their children. Initially at least, it all started with a report in the 90s that was published in the British medical journal Lancet that purported to find a link between autism and childhood vaccinations, specifically the MMR vaccine, which is meant to immunize children against measles, mumps, and rubella. That study quickly came into question by other experts though, and in 2010, Lancet formally withdrew the article. Soon after that, it was revealed that much of the research that formed the basis for the report was entirely fraudulent, and just recently a new study confirmed that there is in fact no scientifically documented link between autism and vaccination. The damage was done, though, and thanks to celebrities such as Jenny McCarthy and Donald Trump and politicians such as Michele Bachmann and Rand Paul, the anti-vaccination movement has become largely self-sustaining. As a result of that, we’ve seen a resurgence in cases of Whopping Cough, and in measles, which had previously been eradicated in the United States. It’s entirely possible the same thing could happen with Rubella, of course, although the fact that the disease is generally less contagious than measles would hopefully mean that any future outbreaks would be limited and easily contained.
In any case, this is another tremendous public health achievement thanks to vaccination and education. And other reason the anti-vaccination movement should be ashamed of itself.