Rubella, or German measles, a disease that once infected tens of thousands of people a year and was responsible for numerous birth defects, is on the verge of being eliminated in the United States. Cases of rubella have fallen from almost 58,000 in 1969, the year the vaccine was introduced, to 272 in 1999.
Rubella, which typically causes a mild rash, was considered harmless until the 1940s, when it was discovered that it could cause birth defects in children whose mothers were infected while pregnant. The virus can cause miscarriages and stillbirths, as well as problems for babies including cataracts, heart defects, hearing damage and developmental delays.
The goal now should be to educate foreign-born people about rubella, ensure that doctors ask patients about vaccinations, and perhaps help other countries with their vaccination programs.
Infants in the United States are routinely immunized against rubella. And in the late 1970s, doctors also began vaccinating women of childbearing age. In 1989, the United States set a goal of eliminating rubella by 2000. From 1992 through 1997, fewer than 300 cases were reported annually, with an all-time low of 128 cases in 1995. As of January 2001, 44 of 47 countries in the Americas had childhood rubella vaccination programs, though most have been in effect for less than three years.