The Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) recently declared that the Region of the Americas (which includes 48 member countries and territories in North, Central, and South America) is the first in the world to completely eliminate the measles virus. The eradication of the measles virus was the culmination of a 22-year effort focused on vaccinating populations against measles, mumps, and rubella.
According to the PAHO, measles is the fifth vaccine-preventable disease to be eliminated from this region. Previously-eradicated diseases include the regional eradication of smallpox in 1971, polio myelitis in 1994, and rubella and congenital rubella syndrome in 2015.
Mass vaccination against the measles virus began in 1980. Prior to that time, more than 2.6 million people died from measles every year worldwide. As a result of the global vaccination effort, there were only 244,704 cases of measles reported in 2015.
Measles is a highly contagious disease–in fact, one of the world’s most contagious diseases–and primarily affects children. It is spread by airborne droplets (such as through sneezing or coughing) or by direct contact with secretions from the nose, mouth, or throat of infected individuals. While most cases of the measles are resolved within a couple of weeks (and can be treated with over-the-counter medications such as fever reducers; there is no prescription medication for measles), some serious complications can result. These complications may include blindness, severe diarrhea, ear infections, and secondary infections such as pneumonia or encephalitis. Immuno-compromised individuals, such as the very young or very old, or those with chronic illnesses are particularly vulnerable.
Just because measles has been eradicated from the region of the Americas does not mean that vaccination against these diseases will end. In fact, it is even more important to maintain vaccination programs to help prevent outbreaks of the disease. Because measles has not been eradicated worldwide, there is still a chance for local outbreaks to occur. The PAHO, along with the World Health Organization (WHO), and the International Expert Committee for Documenting and Verifying Measles, Rubella, and Congenital Rubella Syndrome Elimination in the Americas recommends that all countries within the region continue their vaccination efforts to maintain their populations’ immunity.
“I would like to emphasize that our work on this front is not yet done,” PAHO/WHO Director Carissa F. Etienne said in a press release about the measles eradication. “We can not become complacent with this achievement but must rather protect it carefully. Measles still circulates widely in other parts of the world, and so we must be prepared to respond to imported cases. It is critical that we continue to maintain high vaccination coverage rates, and it is crucial that any suspected measles cases be immediately reported to the authorities for rapid follow-up.”