Measles has been eradicated in the Americas – why should we care?

Minnie Mouse entertains visitors at Disneyland in Anaheim, Calif, where a measles outbreak spread to 667 people in 27 U.S. states in 2015. (AP Jan 2015)

Debates about the safety of vaccines may rage on in the U.S., Canada and other high-income countries, but the widespread use of vaccines has eradicated measles in the western hemisphere.

While other diseases like Zika, malaria and dengue continue unabated, measles in the Americas is dismissed as a disease of the past, aside from recent outbreaks in the U.S.

Before mass vaccination began in 1980, measles caused nearly 2.6 million annual deaths – 500,000 of them children – worldwide, according to the World Health Organization. In the U.S. alone, an estimated 3 million to 4 million people were infected each year and killed 400 to 500 annually. Since then, enormous strides have been made to eradicate the virus around the world, but measles still killed some 115,000 children globally last year.

Yesterday, the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) announced that no one has been infected with measles in the Americas for 12 months, meaning that the virus is no longer endemic in both North and South America.

“This is a historic day for our region and indeed the world,” said Carissa Etienne, PAHO Director, at a press conference. “It is proof of the remarkable success that can be achieved when countries work together in solidarity towards a common goal. It is the result of a commitment made more than two decades ago, in 1994, when the countries of the Americas pledged to end measles circulation by the turn of the 21st century.”

Despite ongoing U.S. efforts to help lead the continent in mass immunization, last year, a measles outbreak linked to a case at Disneyland in California spread to 667 people in 27 U.S. states, according to to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). It was the greatest number of cases since measles had been declared eliminated in the U.S. in 2000. Most of those infected had not received the two recommended doses of the MMR vaccine (which effectively prevents measles, mumps and rubella).

Measles is an extremely contagious virus that’s easily spread through coughing and sneezing to those who haven’t been immunized. The virus can live for up to two hours in an airspace where the infected person coughed or sneezed. Before a vaccine became available in 1963, according to the CDC, almost all children in the U.S. contracted the disease before the age of 15.

The symptoms of measles generally appear a week or two after infection, starting with a high fever, cough, runny nose, red and watery eyes, and white spots inside the mouth. Measles will also cause a distinctive red rash across the body.

For children younger than 5 and adults older than 20 years of age, infection can lead to ear infections and diarrhea as well as more serious complications, such as infection of the lungs and swelling of the brain, resulting in hospitalization and potentially death. Pneumonia is the most common cause of death from measles in young children, according to data from the CDC, appearing in one out of every 20 children infected with the virus.

At yesterday’s press conference, Etienne cautioned officials not to become complacent, as the virus still circulates in other regions of the world. Although the western hemisphere has not seen a case of endemic measles since 2002, it can easily be brought by an infected traveler from overseas. Disease experts urge families to vaccinate their children for their health as well as that of others around them, and so that the Americas can keep measles a disease of the past.

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Lisa Nikolau

Lisa Nikolau is a Madrid-based reporter for Humanosphere, covering gender equality, indigenous rights and poverty in Latin America and worldwide. Find her on Twitter at @lisanikolau, email lisa.nikolau@humanosphere.org or see her latest work at www.lisanikolau.com