Once in a while, the global health news is good. Today is one of those days.
The Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) announced today that measles has been eliminated in the Americas region. “This is a historic day for our region and indeed the world,” said PAHO/WHO Director Carissa F. Etienne in a statement. “It is proof of the remarkable success that can be achieved when countries work together in solidarity towards a common goal. It is the result of a commitment made more than two decades ago, in 1994, when the countries of the Americas pledged to end measles circulation by the turn of the 21st century.”
This is a genuinely historic achievement – this is the first region in the world to be able to do this.
Measles is one of the leading causes of death in young children, and it is highly contagious. According to the World Health Organization, before mass vaccination was initiated in 1980, measles caused nearly 2.6 million annual deaths worldwide. In the Americas, 101,800 deaths were attributable to measles between 1971 and 1979. Still, measles killed some 115,000 children worldwide last year.
Its elimination in the Americas region means that while an occasional case of measles may be registered in the region, the infection itself occurred outside the region. No one has been infected with measles in the Americas for 12 months. A major child-killer has been brought to an end.
In some ways, measles is low-hanging fruit as disease elimination goes. The measles virus has a safe, cheap and highly effective vaccine. There is no wild virus of the type we find with polio. However, vaccinating enough children to ensure population immunity is a logistical challenge even when a good vaccine is available. The vaccine must be kept cold from its time of production up until it is used, and reaching every child in a country requires extensive planning.
The region stands as a model for others. There are 47 countries in the Americas region, which includes North, Central, and South America and the Caribbean. May of the countries in the region face serious health challenges, from the malnutrition that plagues Haiti to the devastation Zika has brought to Latin America. Despite these challenges these nations have been able to prioritize the health of their children and put an end to measles. The Americas is the first region to eliminate measles; it must not be the last.
The region is a warning as well as a model. The last measles outbreaks seen in the Americas were in January 2015, in the US, Canada, and Brazil. Brazil has some excuse; the country is still grappling with serious poverty challenges. For the United States and Canada, though, it is a warning. All of our national wealth and infrastructure can’t protect us from people who refuse to have their children vaccinated. The wealthiest countries in the Americas region may well be the ones who let measles return to the region.