Public-health officials capped a 22-year-effort with the announcement Tuesday that they had eradicated measles from the Americas, even as it remains a leading cause of death among children in other parts of the world.
Officials said it was a remarkable achievement, noting that the Americas cover 55 countries and territories over a vast geographic area and are home to roughly 1 billion people—or 13.5 percent of the world’s total population. World Health Organization officials attribute the region’s measles-free status to strict vaccination programs, strong political commitment and good communication throughout the Americas.
“This is a historic day for our region and indeed the world,” said Carissa Etienne, director of the Pan American Health Organization, which is part of the WHO. “It is proof of the remarkable success that can be achieved when countries work together in solidarity towards a common goal.”
Sandy Ong says public health officials in North, South, and Central America and the Caribbean have made tremendous strides in eliminating vaccine-preventable childhood infections:
Measles is the fifth vaccine-preventable disease to be eliminated from the Americas. Rubella (or german measles) and congenital rubella syndrome (or CRS) were banished last year, while smallpox and polio were removed in 1971 and 1994 respectively.
“Today’s declaration is a very important and significant step towards the ultimate goal of global measles eradication,” says William Moss, a pediatric infectious disease specialist from John Hopkins University, who also works with the WHO. But he cautions that being declared disease-free doesn’t mean that measles will never surface again in the Americas.
Here is the impact of this announcement:
Before mass vaccination was initiated in 1980, measles caused nearly 2.6 million annual deaths worldwide. In the Americas, 101,800 deaths were attributable to measles between 1971 and 1979. A cost-effectiveness study on measles elimination in Latin America and the Caribbean has estimated that with vaccination, 3.2 million measles cases will have been prevented in the Region and 16,000 deaths between 2000 and 2020.
While endemic measles has been eliminated, Donald G. McNeil, Jr. reminds us to keep our guard up:
Despite the elimination of endemic measles, outbreaks of imported strains continue. A case of measles in the United States was reported earlier this month, for example. In December 2014, an outbreak of hundreds of cases started in California’s Disneyland and spread to several western states and then to Mexico and Canada.
The outbreak, involving a strain of measles circulating in the Philippines, was declared over in April 2015. But its rapid dissemination exposed the fact that nine million American children were not fully vaccinated against measles and led to tightening of vaccination rules for California schoolchildren.
In February 2015, P.A.H.O. and the World Health Organization warned that vaccination rates in the United States and Brazil appeared to be “below levels needed to prevent the spread of imported cases.”
Endemic measles is gone, thank goodness, but immunization with the MMR vaccine will continue well into the future.