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Thanks To Vaccination, Rubella Has Been Eliminated From The Western Hemisphere

Childhood Vaccine

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.

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About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May, 2010 and also writes at Below The Beltway. Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. OzarkHillbilly says:

    But what about my freedom to infect other people with deadly diseases? Huh? Ever think about that?

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  2. Hal_10000 says:

    As a friend of mine said on FB, the most powerful side effect of vaccines is eliminating deadly diseases.

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  3. Hal_10000 says:

    Additional note: we are very close to eradicating polio from the planet. What’s holding us back is religious fundamentalism and ludditism in some countries (which was not helped by the CIA’s fake vaccination program).

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  4. Dave Schuler says:

    The difference between my experience of life and those of a generation or two younger than me is truly remarkable. I was vaccinated against smallpox and contracted a host of what were considered ordinary childhood diseases: chickenpox, mumps, measles, and German measles.

    I also had classmates and, even more so, their parents who’d survived polio.

    Do most kids in the United States these days even think there are such things as “ordinary childhood diseases”? Truly remarkable.

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  5. grumpy realist says:

    Another possible side effect of rubella if you’re female and you have it at the wrong time of your life is great difficulty in carrying babies to term. (At least that’s what my mother was told was the reason she kept having problems.)

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  6. Mikey says:

    @Dave Schuler: I was born in 1966 and the only one of those I had was chicken pox, but now there’s even a vaccination for that.

    It is hard for even young adults today to imagine an array of “ordinary” diseases like measles and rubella that can have such terrible effects. Unfortunately, the distance between today’s near-eradication and yesteryear’s devastating consequences is large enough to give the anti-vaxxer movement space to grow.

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  7. Gustopher says:

    Why doesn’t the EPA declare it to be an endangered species? Is there a requirement in the law that the species be multi-cellular, or not a plague upon humanity? If we are reintroducing wolves to areas they have been eradicated from, shouldnt we be reintroducing rubella to its natural habitat?

    (I’m joking, of course, but I am also genuinely curious)

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  8. @Gustopher:

    Since Rubella is accidentally introduced to North America from Europe, it’s an invasive pest species and thus not entitled to endangered species protection.

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  9. michael reynolds says:

    @Dave Schuler:

    I was even vaccinated against tuberculosis because at the time I was in French school. Much later in life a lung lesion (caused by siphoning gas, poorly) and antibodies from the inoculation convinced my doctor I had TB.

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  10. DrDaveT says:

    Whopping Cough

    That’s the second time I’ve seen you make this same typo, so just in case it’s not really a typo I thought I would correct it. It’s whooping cough — a cough that makes babies whoop (as they gasp for breath), not a Really Big Cough.

    As an aside, what does it even mean to say that a contagious disease has been eradicated from a continent, or a hemisphere, in these days of instant global travel? “No endemic pools of infection” can be undone pretty quickly.

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  11. Franklin says:

    I could be mistaken, and my parents are too dead to ask, but I think I had chickenpox and measles. Born in the early 70s here.

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  12. Dave Schuler says:

    It’s got to affect the way you think about disease. I wonder if that’s one of the reasons behind the fascination with zombies.

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  13. steve says:

    Yet, some people claim that health care is only a drag on the economy.

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  14. TheoNott says:

    @Gustopher:
    Well, as a virus, Rubella is arguably not alive to begin with.

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  15. Kari Q says:

    @Gustopher:

    I’m aware you were joking, but ina sense there’s an issue there that scientists think about. I presume you’re familiar with the debate about whether to preserve the smallpox virus?

    The success of vaccines is key to the anti-vaccine movement. If they didn’t work so well, we would all still be familiar with the potentially serious consequences of these diseases and everyone would demand better vaccines for their children.

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  16. Dave Schuler says:

    @steve:

    There’s no contradiction in my statements, steve. As you yourself have pointed out an enormous proportion of healthcare spending is devoted to overtreating the elderly. That’s exactly what one would expect based on incentives.

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  17. Anonne says:

    As an aside, it’s amazing what is being done with the polio virus to treat glioblastomas. No, I don’t think any species should be wholly eradicated, just controlled.

    http://www.cbsnews.com/news/polio-cancer-treatment-duke-university-60-minutes-scott-pelley/

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