Rubella Could Make a Comeback to Western Hemisphere


Rubella, commonly known as German measles, could make a comeback in the Western Hemisphere, according to health officials. Health experts said the disease, declared eradicated on this side of the world last week, could show itself again because of imported cases and the non-vaccination movement.

The disease was officially declared eliminated from the Americas on April 29 by a scientific panel consisting of global health authorities. The Western Hemisphere becomes the first World Health Organization region to eradicate rubella, although other parts of the world including Central Asia, Russia and Eastern Europe are expected to soon follow. The last rubella case in the Americas was reported in Argentina in 2009. Rubella is the third disease to be eliminated from the Americas. Polio and smallpox were also eradicated with polio eliminated in 1994 and smallpox eradicated in 1971.

Rubella is not a serious disease for most children as it typically only last three days and produces only mild symptoms in typical cases. Its danger is when pregnant women contract it. In those cases, rubella could cause the baby to have cataracts, deafness or mental retardation. It can also, in some cases, cause a miscarriage.

While doctors are thrilled with the news from the global scientific panel, the health community said the news does not mean there are no rubella cases in the Western Hemisphere, which includes the United States, Canada, Mexico, Central America and South America, islands in the Caribbean and in part of the Pacific Ocean. It means there are no cases originating in the Americas. The Western Hemisphere could see other rubella cases pop up and make a comeback because of immigration and parents denying vaccinations for their children.

The issue of immunization against childhood diseases was put under the microscope of public commentary when 70 people contracted measles while visiting Disneyland in California, in December of 2014. Public health officials said 49 of the cases were directly linked to the theme park or the adjacent park of Disney California Adventure Park. There were nine cases reported outside California, including Utah, Arizona, Washington, Oregon and Mexico that were linked to the park. Public health officials said most of those contracting the disease were not vaccinated because the victims were either too young for a vaccine or had never been vaccinated.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows that there were 222 cases of standard measles cases with 17 outbreaks in the United States in 2011 with most of those coming from not vaccinated persons from other countries. Standard measles is a more serious illness than German measles. It is used as an indicator of outbreak possibilities because it is part of the vaccination program, which also includes vaccines against mumps and rubella. CDC officials said 2011 saw the highest number of measles cases since 1996.

CDC officials are keeping track of immunizations through school systems. All public schools and most private schools require immunizations for kindergartners. However, there are some who do not allow their children to be vaccinated and the law allows for that. All but two states, Mississippi and West Virginia, allow exemptions from vaccinations for religious or philosophical reasons. CDC numbers show the average rate of MMR vaccination coverage was 94.8 percent for the 47 reporting states, plus the District of Columbia.

The anti-vaccine movement began growing a few years ago when some parents of autistic children, including celebrity Jenny McCarthy, began exploring a possible link between children’s vaccinations and autism. The parents state children began developing autism symptoms after vaccines were given. The CDC reports there is no link between the two, citing studies by the Institute of Medicine in 2011 and a 2013 CDC study. Other health experts state the discovery of autism after vaccinations is a coincidental timing issue because typically autism begins showing itself around the age of vaccinations.

Health officials said a lack of vaccinations make for a perfect storm for rubella to make a comeback in the Western Hemisphere. Doctors are urging parents to take the threat of disease seriously and vaccinate children.

By Melody Dareing

New York Times

National Public Radio

Center for Disease Control

Photo by Kimberly Brown-Azzarello – Creativecommons Flickr license

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