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Measles is disappearing from the Western hemisphere

Decades of measles and rubella vaccinations for U.S. children are paying off. A new Centers for Disease Control report published today in JAMA Pediatrics confirms that the United States has eliminated endemic transmission of three potentially devastating diseases: measles, rubella (also known as German measles) and congenital rubella syndrome, which causes serious birth defects.

The report is part of a larger effort by the World Health Organization to certify the entire Western hemisphere free of endemic measles and rubella, which are chains of transmitted cases that continue for 12 months or more. Today, the large majority of measles cases seen in the U.S. are clearly linked to international travel or contact with travelers, and genetic evidence suggests that uniquely American strains of the measles and rubella viruses no longer exist. All other countries in the Americas are also reporting elimination of endemic transmission of these diseases.

The findings confirm the value of high rates of measles and rubella vaccination. Nearly 95 percent of U.S. children have had the two vaccine doses needed to confer lasting immunity by the time they enter kindergarten. Because measles is still endemic in other parts of the world, it’s important not to let up on vaccination here, the report notes. In spite of the good news about the elimination of endemic infections, 2013 has been a relatively bad year for imported infections, as CNN reported today.

An editorial accompanying the JAMA Pediatrics report offers interesting perspective on the need to continue with vaccinations:

Prior to 1990, Mexico was the leading source of measles importations into the United States, but this year, half of all importations into the United States were from Europe. Since 2008, there has been a resurgence of measles cases in Western European countries. The majority of these outbreaks have been in unimmunized populations in countries where national immunization programs are being challenged by a combination of public and political complacency regarding the value of immunization and by the rising influence of antivaccination groups. After 500 years, we have now returned to a situation where the Americas are free from indigenous measles and rubella with Europe once again a source of importations.

The elimination of endemic measles from the Western hemisphere raises hope that global eradication of measles is on the horizon, an important public health goal since measles is most likely to kill impoverished children in developing countries. Already, the increase in vaccination in African countries has led to a 91 percent decrease in measles deaths there, with 550,000 fewer annual deaths than a decade ago.

Previously: Measles are on the rise; now’s the time to vaccinate, says infectious-disease expert, Tips for parents on back-to-school vaccinationsA look at the causes and potential cost of the U.S. measles outbreaks and Unvaccinated children may pose a public health risk

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