The PAHO/WHO Declares the Americas to Be Free of Measles

Once a potentially fatal disease endemic to North and South America, health officials declared the Americas to be free of measles. Public health officials at a joint meeting of the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) and the World Health Organization (WHO) made the announcement in late September 2016.

Nearly 102,000 people died from the disease in the Americas between 1971 and 1979 alone. However, measles now joins the ranks of smallpox, polio, rubella, and congenital rubella syndrome that have been eliminated from the Americas. Estimates suggest that the vaccination prevented 3.2 million cases of measles in Latin America and the Caribbean alone between 2000 and 2020.

Public health officials attribute the elimination of this disease to intensive vaccination efforts in children by both health workers and volunteers. While the last endemic case in the Americas was reported in 2002, cases due to importation of the virus continued.

Once unheard of in the US in recent years, vulnerable unvaccinated children have contracted the highly contagious disease from people who inadvertently brought it into the country. The misguided anti-vaccination movement contributed to this grave threat to public health.

The most recent outbreak in the Americas began in Brazil in 2013 leading to a year of enhanced surveillance and targeted actions. Public health officials registered the last case of measles in Brazil in July 2015.

Thus, experts cautioned against complacency, saying that public health officials in the Americas must be prepared to respond to imported cases of measles. The disease is still widespread in Africa and Asia. The PAHO/WHO and the International Expert Committee urged that all countries in the Americas strengthen their surveillance of the disease and actively continue vaccination to maintain immunity.