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Rubella virus officially eliminated from the Americas

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The disease joins the ranks of polio and smallpox

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It's official: rubella, a disease that can be deadly for fetuses, has been eliminated from the Americas. The news was announced today by a scientific panel convened by global health authorities, reports The New York Times. The Americas is the first World Health Organization region to eliminate the disease.

120,000 children born with birth defects associated with rubella every year

Sometimes referred to as the German measles, rubella is a contagious viral infection that is best known for causing a red rash and a fever. Its effects can be far more destructive, however. In 1964 and 1965, an epidemic in the US resulted in 12.5 million cases of rubella. During that time, approximately 20,000 fetuses were born with rubella-associated defects. Another 11,000 fetuses were miscarried or aborted. Thankfully, a lot has changed since then; the last known case of rubella in the Americas was confirmed in 2009, in Argentina.

Diseases have been eliminated from the Americas before. In 1971, an announcement was made that smallpox had been eliminated. A little over 20 years later, polio followed suit. Today, smallpox has been eliminated from every region of the Earth. Polio, however, has resurfaced a number of times — notably in Pakistan. Despite today's milestone, about 120,000 children around the world are born with birth defects associated with rubella every year. There is no cure for rubella, but it can be prevented thanks to a vaccine, called MMR, which also protects against the measles and the mumps.

"Although it has taken some 15 years, the fight against rubella has paid off," Carissa Etienne, director of the Pan American Health Organization, told The New York Times. "Now, with rubella under our belt, we need to roll up our sleeves and finish the job of eliminating measles, as well." Measles cases have been making a comeback in the US recently, largely because of people who refuse to vaccinate their children. A recent outbreak of measles linked to a Disneyland visitor resulted in 130 cases of measles in California alone.