Washington, D.C. December 10, 2010(PAHO) — A group of international experts today is detailing how they will conclude the process of documenting and verifying the elimination of measles, rubella, and congenital rubella syndrome in the Americas.

The first meeting of an International Expert Committee on the topic, held at the Pan American Health Organization today, is developing a plan of action that would confirm the elimination of these vaccine-preventable diseases from the Americas, using scientific tools, national commissions, surveillance, and analysis. The group is chaired by Dr. Merceline Dahl-Regis, Chief Medical Officer of the Bahamas, and includes epidemiologists and other experts from other countries throughout the Americas.

Measles, one of the most contagious diseases in the world, is one of the leading causes of death among young children, despite the fact that a safe and cost-effective vaccine is available. The Region of the Americas reported its last endemic case of measles in November 2002, eight years after calling for measles elimination. All subsequent cases have been imported or import-related measles.  However, around the world, there are still about 160,000 measles deaths every year, almost all in low-income countries with weak health infrastructures.

Rubella, which can result in severe birth defects if a pregnant woman is infected, has been substantially reduced through vaccination programs that have reached nearly 445 million people in the Americas. The last endemic case in the Americas was reported in February 2009.

The Region of the Americas has spearheaded the eradication and elimination of vaccine-preventable diseases, starting with smallpox in 1973, polio in 1994, and now moving on to measles, rubella, Congenital Rubella Syndrome, and neonatal tetanus.

PAHO Director Dr. Mirta Roses said, "One of my achievable dreams is to eliminate those health conditions or diseases that still afflict our peoples despite the fact that we possess the knowledge and the tools with which to make them virtually disappear. We are therefore ethically bound to make a determined effort to implement them without further delay."

Dr. Cuauhtemoc Ruiz, who heads PAHO's Comprehensive Family Immunization program, told participants at today's meeting, "Our regional vision and strategy is to protect the vaccination achievements, complete the unfinished agenda, and meet new challenges," with a good infrastructure for  vaccination and solid political and financial support to maintain programs.

PAHO Deputy Director Dr. Jon K. Andrus urged continuing the fight against vaccine-preventable diseases. "We have a unique opportunity," he said. "Sustaining the achievements of each region will require global vision and leadership. We also require intensified communications support, since publicity, social mobilization, and messaging are crucial to attaining high participation and good coverage rates in our elimination effort. This was crucial for smallpox, for polio, and in today's more inter-connected world, it is even more important."

In addition to routine vaccination activities, the immunization outlook in the Americas has improved since Vaccination Week in the Americas began in 2002 as a joint campaign initiated by Andean countries. Each country has set its own targets and goals, ranging from initiatives to target high-risk populations, implement rubella elimination campaigns and follow-up measles vaccination, to the introduction of new vaccines, such as seasonal influenza, pentavalent, and rotavirus. Inequities remain a barrier to reaching those left behind in the Region, and this is a challenge Vaccination Week addresses by focusing on principles of equity, access, and Pan Americanism to increase and strengthen routine immunization coverage, improve coverage in isolated and vulnerable populations, and promote basic health care through integrated activities.

The Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) was established in 1902 and is the world's oldest public health organization. It serves as the regional office of the World Health Organization, and works with all the countries of the Americas to improve the health and quality of life of their peoples.


For more information please contact Daniel Epstein, PAHO, Public Information, 202-974-3459.