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Measles and Rubella Around the World

Medically reviewed by Susan Kerrigan, MD and Marianne Madsen on February 2, 2023

Measles and rubella are diseases that were primarily eradicated through the development of vaccines; however, as a result of various factors, including non compliance, lack of knowledge, and false beliefs surrounding these diseases, global outbreaks are once again surfacing. 


What Is Measles?


Measles is a highly contagious respiratory disease caused by a virus. It can result in serious health complications, such as pneumonia and encephalitis (swelling of the brain), and even death. Measles is one of the most contagious diseases and is one of the leading causes of death in children globally. 


The World Health Organization (WHO) indicates that in 2019 there were more measles cases reported worldwide than in any year since 2006. More than 500,000 confirmed cases of measles were reported from more than 180 countries, many from large measles outbreaks. All WHO regions are experiencing large, often extended, outbreaks of the disease. Multiple countries have declared outbreaks. Outbreaks are declared when the number of cases reported in an area exceeds the expected number of cases, as the expected number is specific to the individual country. 2017 statistics reported over 173,000 cases of measles worldwide with the largest number of cases in DR Congo, India, Indonesia, Somalia, Nigeria, and Pakistan.


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Virus - Overview

Virus - Overview

What Is Rubella?


Rubella (sometimes called “German measles”) is a disease that is similar to measles, but it is caused by a different virus. Generally, the symptoms of rubella are mild, but when a pregnant woman is exposed to rubella, even if her symptoms are mild or non-existent, there is a 90% chance that the baby will be born with congenital abnormalities. If a woman gets rubella while pregnant–especially in her first three months–serious consequences can result, including miscarriage, fetal death, stillbirth, and an infant born with congenital rubella syndrome (CRS). CRS is a group of devastating birth defects that includes blindness, deafness, and heart defects. More than 100,000 children are born every year with CRS, mainly in Africa, South-East Asia, and the Western Pacific. 


The Importance Of Vaccines


The way to prevent both of these illnesses is to reach and vaccinate as many children as possible. Vaccinating children on schedule and ensuring that each gets two doses of measles vaccine is critical to eliminating this deadly disease. It costs as little as $2 to vaccinate a child against both of these illnesses even among the poor and marginalized.


There is a combination vaccination that is administered in order to combat both measles and rubella. The rubella and measles viruses are unrelated and are from different virus families. However, they do have some similarities. Both viruses are spread from person to person by coughing and sneezing, can result in fever and skin rash after infection, and survive only in human hosts. Prevention of measles and rubella can be achieved with vaccines that can be delivered together as a combined measles-rubella (MR) vaccine or combined with vaccines against mumps (MMR) and varicella (chickenpox) (MMRV).


The Center For Disease Control (CDC) started a project that aims to completely eradicate measles and rubella. Between 2001 and 2017, over 2.9 million children were vaccinated; this is estimated to have prevented over 21.1 million measles-related deaths. These statistics highlight the magnitude of the necessity to vaccinate. Thanks to decades of vaccinating children against measles and rubella, the Americas have been free of the domestic measles virus since 2002 and free of domestic rubella since 2009. Cambodia hasn’t reported a single confirmed case of measles since November of 2011, while its neighbors continue to face outbreaks, illness, and death from this vaccine-preventable disease.


In efforts to completely eradicate these diseases globally, the CDC has committed to achieve and maintain high levels of population immunity by providing high vaccination coverage with two doses of measles and rubella vaccines. It further plans to monitor diseases using effective surveillance and evaluate programmatic efforts to ensure progress. This will include research and development that is needed in order to support operations that are cost-effective. In addition it plans to develop and maintain outbreak preparedness, respond rapidly to outbreaks, and manage cases. It has also committed to communicate and engage to build public confidence and demand for immunization. Operations are continually becoming more cost effective, and vaccination and diagnostic tools are constantly being improved. Full eradication of these diseases will only be achieved through public awareness and support of these efforts.


Written by Joanne Myers

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