Rubella eliminated from Australia confirms WHO

The World Health Organization (WHO) has confirmed that Australia has managed to eliminate the viral infection rubella from its population. This is a significant achievement on part of the country’s healthcare system. WHO defines elimination of a disease as “reduction to zero of the incidence of infection caused by a specific agent in a defined geographical area”.

Image Credit: OneSideProFoto / Shutterstock
Image Credit: OneSideProFoto / Shutterstock

Rubella or German Measles is a vaccine-preventable viral infection that may cause a mild viral fever along with rash, sore throat and other symptoms. It is however very dangerous for pregnant women. Pregnant women who contract rubella are at risk of miscarrying and having still births. If the pregnant women contracts rubella during her first trimester, there is an 80 percent risk of her miscarrying. The fetus is also at a great risk of Congenital rubella syndrome (CRS). CRS can cause deafness, cataracts, blindness, heart defects and mental retardation among the babies.

Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt said in a statement, “The elimination of rubella is a highly significant public health accomplishment for Australia and sends a powerful message that vaccinations work.” This achievement is due to the efforts of the National Immunisation Program (NIP). At present 94.62 percent of the children under five years of age across Australia are vaccinated against Rubella and this is the highest record. The vaccine and a booster dose are provided for free for children aged 12 months (booster at 18 months) from the NIP.

According to the records Australia used to suffer from intermediate epidemics of rubella affecting thousands of children and pregnant women. There were over 5000 cases in 1958 followed by over 3000 cases in 1963-64 and over 4000 cases in 1990s. Complete elimination has been achieved now because of the wide vaccine coverage, say the experts. Between 2012 and 2017 there have been only 4 cases of CRS and only 40 reported cases of rubella per year across the country.

Minister Hunt said that the widespread vaccinations “they save and protect lives and are an essential part of a healthy society.” He added, “Australia has high-performing surveillance systems to rapidly detect and respond to rubella cases and [the] confirmation this disease has been eliminated is testimony to the success of our NIP.”

Incidentally Australian ophthalmologist Sir Norman McAlister Gregg first described the connection between rubella infection in pregnant women and eye problems and other defects in the babies with CRS. It was in the 1960s that Australia developed the vaccine against this infection.

The agencies have emphasized that the disease is merely eliminated and not completely eradicated. Vaccination coverage needs to be maintained in order to ensure that the infection does not cause harm to pregnant women.

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