By Lee Bowman
Scripps Howard News Service
Still, this is no time to stop getting vaccinated, they warned.
The relatively mild, feverish illness with rash typically is more nuisance than threat for most children and even adults who get it. However, it causes severe birth defects - including deafness and blindness - and even death in babies whose mothers become infected during the pregnancy.
A 1964-1965 rubella epidemic in the United States caused an estimated 12.5 million cases and more than 20,000 instances of congenital rubella syndrome (CRS)_ leading to more than 13,000 fetal and neonatal deaths, more than 11,000 babies born deaf, 3,500 born blind and 1,800 born mentally retarded.
"The elimination of rubella in the United States is a tremendous step in protecting the health and well-being of pregnant women and infants," said Dr. Julie Gerberding, director of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"A disease that once seriously harmed tens of thousands of infants is no longer a major health threat, thanks to a safe and effective vaccine and successful immunization programs across the country," Gerberding added. She made the announcement during a meeting of the National Immunization Conference.
Although there were nine cases of rubella reported in the United States last year, all were "imports" _ infections picked up by unvaccinated children or adults in another country who became ill here. The last known transmission of the disease within the country was reported in 2000.
An international panel of immunization experts actually concluded last fall that the rubella virus was no longer endemic in the United States.
Currently, about 93 percent of the nation's children under age 2 are vaccinated against measles, mumps and rubella, according to the CDC's National Immunization Survey. More than 95 percent of children are vaccinated against rubella by the time they enter school.
A rubella vaccine was licensed in 1969, and incidence of the disease has been on the decline since. There was a peak of more than 57,000 reported cases in 1969; by 1983, fewer than 1,000 cases were being reported each year.
The CDC in 1989 set a national goal of eliminating the virus, and the last major outbreak in the country occurred in 1991.
Yet there is resistance among some parents concerned about claims that preservatives in the vaccine may affect neurological development, and others who object to vaccination on religious grounds. Gerberding noted that "there is no evidence of harm associated with this vaccine on developmental delays or disabilities."
"We can't afford to relax our emphasis on immunization now. The MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine is a wonderful vaccine that protects kids now and adults later," she added.
Rubella is largely controlled in more developed nations, but many other countries don't have the money or health-care networks to vaccinate most kids. "It is in theory possible to eliminate this disease globally, but the world has not been able to commit to that goal yet," Gerberding said.
Aggressive vaccination campaigns have been under way in most countries in the Western hemisphere for several years, said Dr. Mirta Roses Periago, director of the Pan American Health Organization.
"We have achieved an almost 99 percent reduction of cases reported in the region and all the countries of the Americas have resolved to eliminate rubella and CRS by 2010," she said.
The roughly 1,600 cases reported in the hemisphere last year occurred in a number of countries, Roses said, with no very large outbreak. She did note that her organization is putting particular emphasis on getting the resources and health personnel in place to mount stronger vaccination efforts in Haiti, the Dominican Republic and Guatemala next year.
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