The Americas is the first region on the planet to have eliminated measles, an international committee from the Pan American Health Organization/World Health Organization (PAHO/WHO) announced on Wednesday.  Measles is now the fifth vaccine-preventable disease that has been eliminated in the Americas, following smallpox, poliomyelitis, rubella, and congenital rubella.

Measles is a viral disease that can cause serious complications including pneumonia, ear infections, blindness, brain swelling, and even death.  It is highly contagious, spread through airborne droplets or direct contact with bodily fluids. Before a mass vaccination campaign began in 1980, measles caused nearly 2.6 million deaths worldwide annually.

“This is a historic day for our region and indeed the world,” PAHO/WHO Director Carissa F. Etienne said in a press release. “It is proof of the remarkable success that can be achieved when countries work together in solidarity towards a common goal.”

Elimination of measles in the Americas does not mean that no one in the region will ever have the disease again.  However, it does mean is that any cases of measles in the Americas are brought by people infected with the disease from other countries rather than originating from homegrown infections.

“I would like to emphasize that our work on this front is not yet done,” Etienne said. “Measles still circulates widely in other parts of the world, and so we must be prepared to respond to imported cases.”

The last indigenous measles outbreak in the region was reported in Venezuela in 2002.  An imported outbreak began in Brazil in 2013, and its last case was registered in 2015.  The fourteen-year absence of indigenous cases and the evidence of a tamed nonnative outbreak proved to the PANO/WHO that the disease was eliminated regionally.

The elimination of measles is one step closer to its eradication, which the WHO defines as “complete and permanent worldwide reduction to zero new cases” of measles.  Thus far, smallpox is the only disease to be eradicated.  The final step in ending a disease is extinction, when the disease’s infectious agent no longer exists in nature or in a lab — permanently erased.  No disease has reached extinction.

PAHO/WHO recommends that all countries in the Americas continue to be vigilant in watching for outbreaks of the disease, and continue to maintain immunity through vaccination.   “We cannot become complacent with this achievement but must rather protect it carefully,” Etienne said.

Watch a video from WHO about the regional measles eradication here.

Image credit:Apotek Hjartat