The World Health Organization has announced that measles has been eliminated in the Americas, after a half a century of widespread vaccinations. In particular, it is the culmination of a 22-year long mass vaccination campaign against measles, mumps, and rubella in the western hemisphere.

The WHO, along with the Pan American Health Organization, announced the landmark health accomplishment on September 27th. This makes the Americas the first region in the world to eliminate the infectious disease, which can cause serious health problems. Marked by the appearance of flat, red spots all over the body, measles can lead to blindness, pneumonia, brain swelling, and can even be fatal.

Attended by ministers of health from throughout the western hemisphere, the announcement was made at the 55th Directing Council of the PAHO/WHO. This will make measles the fifth vaccine-preventable disease to be eliminated from the Americas. Smallpox was regionally eradicated in 1971, poliomyelitis in 1994, and congenital rubella syndrome was eliminated in 2015.

“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,” said PAHO/WHO Director Carissa F. Etienne.

Prior to mass vaccinations starting in 1980, measles claimed the lives of 2.6 million people annually. 101,800 deaths were attributed to measles in the Americas during the 70s.  One study estimated that 3.2 million cases of measles have been prevented in Latin America and the Caribbean alone.

Measles still occur in the Americas, including 54 cases in the United States just this year, due to travelers bringing it to the continent from places where it is more prevalent. The last endemic, home-grown outbreak of measles is considered to have been a 2002 incident in Venezuela. This is why continued vaccinations are so Important – the disease still circulates fairly widely in the rest of the world. Almost 250,000 cases of measles have been reported worldwide last year, which still marks a significant decline from decades past. Most of these cases occurred in Asia or Africa.

Measles, which primarily affects children, is one of the most contagious diseases known. It transmits via secretions or airborne droplets from infected individuals. It is particularly problematic for children with nutritional problems, as well as immunocompromised patients.

The next step, of course, will be to eliminate measles in more vulnerable parts of the world.

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