By Alexandra Sifferlin
April 29, 2015
TIME Health
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The Americas region has become the first to successfully eliminate rubella, a contagious viral infection with similar symptoms to measles, health officials announced on Wednesday.

Medical experts are calling the milestone against the endemic transmission of the infection a “historic achievement.” Rubella and congenital rubella syndrome (CRS) are now the third and fourth vaccine-preventable diseases to be eliminated in the Americas, following small pox in 1971 and polio in 1994, and experts say it also speaks to the success of a 15-year initiative to provide widespread vaccination against mumps and rubella (MMR) in the area.

“It shows how important it is to make vaccines available even to the remotest corners of our hemisphere,” Carissa F. Etienne, Pan American Health Organization/World Health Organization (PAHO/WHO) director, said during a news conference.

Before mass vaccination was available, medical experts say an estimated 16,000 to 20,000 children were born with CRS in Latin America and the Caribbean. The last major endemic cases in the region were in 2009. The virus is usually mild, but it can cause birth defects and miscarriages when women are infected during pregnancy.

Rubella is less contagious and typically less severe than the measles, but health officials say measles is the next target and that many countries have set a goal to eliminate the disease in their borders as well. The U.S. has experienced new clusters of measles outbreaks in the last year, with low vaccination rates blamed among some communities.

Though rubella has been eliminated in the Americas, it’s still prevalent in other regions in the world. Dr. Susan E. Reef, the team leader for rubella in the Global Immunization Division at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), told reporters on Wednesday that the Americas region and the European region are the only two regions that have an official elimination goal for the disease.

“Now that we have achieved this goal,” Reef said, “the next step is to continue to maintain it.”

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