Measles in the Americas: Going, going — gone!

Some cases will still emerge as travelers bring the virus home from abroad

Measles baby

This small child bears the red spots that signal a measles infection.

Dave Haygarth/ Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

In the 1950s and ‘60s, measles was a common childhood disease. It plagued kids throughout the world. But that’s no longer true in the Americas. International health officials have just reported that the disease had been wiped out from this wide swath of the Western Hemisphere. It’s no longer circulating from Canada to Chile — and the rest of the Americas in between.

It’s an amazing achievement. But it wasn’t easy.

Consider what life was like in the 1950s. Elementary-school classrooms could be partially emptied every few years as a wave of the disease swept through their community. Each year, back then, the illness sickened an estimated 3 million to 4 million people in the United States alone — mostly young children. Nearly 50,000 of them were so ill they ended up in the hospital. Some 400 to 500 people would die.

All of that changed when a vaccine came along. It allowed doctors to prevent the illness. But it only worked if most people agreed to get immunized. And eventually, most did. It’s taken a half-century, but that campaign against the disease worked — at least in the Americas.

That region has become the first anywhere to have eliminated the viral disease. The Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) and World Health Organization made the long-awaited announcement on September 27.

This does not mean the disease is gone for good. So far, only smallpox has been truly eradicated — erased from the wild.

Measles outbreaks still crop up now and then in the Americas. This year, for instance, 54 people in the United States became infected. They picked up the virus from travelers who brought it home from other parts of the world. The good news: A home-grown emergence in the Americas has not occurred since a 2002 outbreak in Venezuela.

Because measles still circulates widely outside of the Americas, vaccinations remain important. “Our work on this front is not yet done,” says PAHO director Carissa Etienne. “We cannot become complacent with this achievement but must rather protect it carefully.”

Measles: Herd immunity and maternal immunity from Matt ferrari on Vimeo.

Meghan Rosen is a staff writer who reports on the life sciences for Science News. She earned a Ph.D. in biochemistry and molecular biology with an emphasis in biotechnology from the University of California, Davis, and later graduated from the science communication program at UC Santa Cruz.

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