So says the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), an arm of the World Health Organization, this week. The group declared North and South America free of endemic measles, meaning we’ve seen no new cases of measles in the Western Hemisphere through local strains (also known as an indigenous measles outbreak) in recent years.
But wait: That does not mean we’ve not seen measles outbreaks here. We have; more on that in a moment.
Measles is the fourth such disease to be eliminated from the Americas, following smallpox (which has been eradicated worldwide), polio, and rubella. The last known indigenous measles outbreak occurred in this region in 2002.
“This is great news, but it doesn’t mean we should stop vaccinating against measles in the U.S. In fact we need to continue our ardent efforts to make sure every child is protected against this terrible virus,” says Alison D. Ziari, an Austin pediatrician and member of the Texas Medical Association’s Be Wise — ImmunizeSM Physician Advisory Panel.
Dr. Ziari is referring to the fact that measles continues to be imported from other countries still suffering from local outbreaks of the virus. Just two years ago, hundreds became infected across the United States, Mexico, and Canada after a tourist spread the disease to visitors at California’s Disneyland. In 2013, North Texas had its own measles outbreak at a megachurch after a parishioner returned with the infection from a trip to Indonesia. These two examples make it clear: Measles remains just a plane ride away.
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PAHO cautions the Americas could lose their hard-won measles-free status if all countries in the region (including the United States) do not maintain their populations’ immunity through vaccination and keep up surveillance of imported measles outbreaks and immunization coverage.
Measles is a tricky disease to defeat, in part due to its highly contagious nature. According to the Centers for Diseases Control and Prevention, “measles is so contagious that if one person has it, 90 percent of the people close to that person who are not immune will also become infected.” Vaccination coverage needs to be between 90-95 percent to stop the spread of the disease in a given region. Yet in 2015, a study from Emory University found 9 million U.S. children are not fully vaccinated against this disease, leaving the door open for another outbreak.
Still, this news from PAHO is historic and a culmination of years of hard, life-saving work by all nations involved, reports PAHO. With continuing efforts, the medical community hopes to see measles go the way of smallpox. “Perhaps we can see the total eradication of measles in our lifetimes,” says Dr. Ziari.
Perhaps, IF we don’t let our guard down and people continue to vaccinate against this disease.
(Be Wise — Immunize is a service mark of the Texas Medical Association.)