Measles declared eradicated in the Americas

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The World Health Organization on Tuesday declared the region of North and South America to be free of measles, a highly infectious virus that used to kill 500,000 children across the world every year.

"It is the result of a commitment made more than two decades ago when the countries of the Americas committed themselves to ending measles at the turn of the century," Dr. Carissa Etienne, director of the Pan American Health Organization, said at a press conference, pointing to aggressive vaccination measures.

She cautioned officials not to become complacent, as the virus still circulates in other regions.

The historic announcement comes nearly two years after the U.S. faced an outbreak of measles linked to a case at Disneyland in California, where someone had become infected while in another country. The virus spread to 667 people in 27 states, according to to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It was the greatest number of cases since measles had been declared eliminated in the U.S. in 2000.

Photos of measles outbreak and vaccines in California:

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MIAMI, FL - JANUARY 28: Miami Children's Hospital pediatrician Dr. Amanda Porro, M.D prepares to administer a measles vaccination to Sophie Barquin,4, as her mother Gabrielle Barquin holds her during a visit to the Miami Children's Hospital on January 28, 2015 in Miami, Florida. A recent outbreak of measles has some doctors encouraging vaccination as the best way to prevent measles and its spread. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
MIAMI, FL - JANUARY 28: Miami Children's Hospital pediatrician Dr. Amanda Porro, M.D administers a measles vaccination to Sophie Barquin,4, as her mother Gabrielle Barquin and Miami Children's Hospital R.N. Diane Lichtman (R) hold her during a visit to the Miami Children's Hospital on January 28, 2015 in Miami, Florida. A recent outbreak of measles has some doctors encouraging vaccination as the best way to prevent measles and its spread. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
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Most of those infected had not received the two recommended doses of the measles-mumps-rubella vaccination, also known as the MMR vaccine. While some of those who contracted the disease were people who were ideologically opposed to vaccinations because they incorrectly believed they are linked to autism, many people who were infected were adults who grew up during a time before aggressive immunization measures were implemented.

Dr. Merceline Dahl-Regis, chair of Elimination in the Americas, an international expert committee for the documentation and verification of measles, rubella and congenital rubella syndrome, said families needed to understand that by not vaccinating they were risking not only their own health but the health of others who are more vulnerable. For many, measles results in a fever, runny nose and rash, but others can die from it.

For rubella, which was declared eliminated from the Americas in 2015, the worry is similar, officials said in the press conference. When a pregnant woman is infected with rubella, she can give birth to a baby that has symptoms similar to those caused by the Zika virus, including microcephaly which results in abnormally small heads and underdeveloped brains.

Susan Reef, lead for the rubella team, part of the CDC's Global Immunization Division, said importations of measles and rubella are expected to occur and that the region must be ready to respond and to continue to make sure children are vaccinated.

"However today, let us celebrate," she said.

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