The rubella virus, which causes a relatively mild respiratory disease in schoolchildren but can lead to serious birth defects in unborn children, is no longer a significant public-health threat in the United States, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced last week.
“We are delighted … to formally and officially declare that rubella has been eliminated in the United States,” Dr. Julie Gerberding, the director of the CDC, said during a press conference. A disease is considered eliminated when it is no longer native to an area; it is eradicated when no cases are reported anywhere throughout the world.
The disease, which reached epidemic proportions in the mid-1960s with 12.5 million U.S. cases, is spread by coughing and sneezing. Young schoolchildren who contract the disease commonly get a rash, but adolescents and adults can suffer from joint stiffness, fever, and more serious complications such as brain infections. The disease, however, has the most serious impact on pregnant women, because it passes through the fetal tissue and can cause deafness, heart defects, mental retardation, and even fetal death in unborn children.
The introduction of a vaccine in the late 1960s reduced reported U.S. cases of rubella, or German measles, to fewer than 100 by 2001. Last year, only nine cases were reported across the country, none in schoolchildren.
Danger of Return
Experts with the CDC and other health organizations caution that the virus could be reintroduced from other parts of the world, making immunization and public awareness continuing priorities.
“The announcement by the CDC is a caution that we have to keep immunization up, because if people aren’t immunized [against rubella], it could spread,” said Dr. Robert Baltimore, a professor of pediatrics at Yale University and a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ committee on infectious diseases.
Rubella is not a life-threatening disease for schoolchildren, he said, but keeping children immunized is an important means of preventing the spread of the virus to pregnant women. Currently, 95 percent of the U.S. population has been immunized against rubella, but if that figure were to drop, he said, an imported strain of the virus could spread swiftly through a community.
The United States is the second country to declare the virus eliminated on its soil. Cuba was the first, in the 1990s.