Australia has eliminated rubella, a disease also known as German measles that’s already been eliminated in the Americas and across much of Europe, the World Health Organization said Wednesday.
The announcement, which Australia’s health minister called a “highly significant public health accomplishment,” comes just days after the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned travelers – especially pregnant women – about an outbreak of the disease in Japan.
Rubella is highly contagious but considered mild for adults, who may develop a rash and a fever for about two to three days, though some people do not feel sick at all.
However, it is also the leading vaccine-preventable cause of birth defects, studies show, and can cause miscarriage, especially in the first trimester of pregnancy.
Women who are pregnant and who are not protected by a vaccine or a previous rubella infection should not to travel to Japan during the current outbreak, which is centered mostly in the Kanto region, which includes Tokyo, the CDC warns.
Rubella continues to be a problem in the certain African and southeast Asian regions, where vaccination rates are at their lowest, according to WHO. Worldwide, 152 of 194 countries have introduced some form of a rubella vaccine into the national immunization schedule, studies show, and cases of rubella declined 97% from 2000 to 2016.
The disease’s elimination in Australia proves the country’s immunization program is a success, the health minister said.
“The elimination of rubella is a great day for public health in Australia and sends a powerful message that vaccinations work,” Hunt said. “I commend the efforts of Australia’s health professionals over the decades and the millions of parents who ensure their children are always vaccinated.”
Australia’s nationwide immunization rate for 5-year-olds has hit a record at more than 94%, Hunt said.
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Australia had rolling epidemics of rubella over the years, with the most cases – about 5,000 – identified in 1958. As recently as the 1990s, the country had 4,000 reported cases, the health ministry said.
“The science is in, and the medical experts’ advice is absolute: Vaccinations save lives and protect lives, and they are an essential part of a healthy society,” Hunt said.
WHO’s Global Vaccine Action Plan aims to eliminate measles and rubella by 2020.