Study: United States is on the verge of eliminating German measles

Tuesday, January 22nd 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

CHICAGO (AP) _ Rubella, or German measles, a disease that once infected tens of thousands of people a year and was responsible for numerous birth defects, is on the verge of being eliminated in the United States, researchers say.

Cases of rubella have fallen from almost 58,000 in 1969, the year the vaccine was introduced, to 272 in 1999, according to a CDC study in Wednesday's Journal of the American Medical Association.

Almost all cases of the disease in the United States now are among Hispanic adults born in other countries, primarily Mexico _ meaning the virus may no longer be circulating in the general U.S. population, said Dr. Susan E. Reef of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Immunization Program.

``What we're seeing now shows the success of the U.S. program,'' she said. ``The most important thing is that we can eliminate this. It's preventable. To me, that's exciting.''

Rubella, which typically causes a mild rash, was considered harmless until the 1940s, when it was discovered that it could cause birth defects in children whose mothers were infected while pregnant. The virus can cause miscarriages and stillbirths, as well as cataracts, heart defects, hearing damage and developmental delays in babies.

The goal now should be to educate foreign-born people about rubella, ensure that doctors ask patients about vaccinations, and perhaps help other countries with their vaccination programs, Reef said.

Rubella and birth defects caused by it ``can be prevented with just one dose,'' she said. ``That is a very important message.''

Infants in the United States are routinely immunized against rubella. And in the late 1970s, doctors also began vaccinating women of childbearing age. In 1989, the United States set a goal of eliminating rubella by 2000.

From 1992 through 1997, fewer than 300 cases were reported annually, with an all-time low of 128 cases in 1995.

As of January 2001, 44 of 47 countries in the Americas had childhood rubella vaccination programs, though most have been in effect for less than three years. The Dominican Republic, Peru and Guatemala were the holdouts.

Dr. Stanford Shulman, head of pediatric infectious diseases at Children's Memorial Hospital in Chicago, said the study shows ``the incredible power of immunization.''

``We must continue our programs of immunizing all the children we can, so even if there are imported cases, we've minimized the transmission,'' he said. ``If there are no susceptibles in our population, an imported case will end right there.''