updated 3/18/2005 6:39:27 PM ET 2005-03-18T23:39:27

German measles, one of the greatest fears of expectant mothers just a few decades ago, is no longer a health threat in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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Medical experts say the CDC’s pronouncement means that U.S. residents no longer develop German measles, formally known as rubella, and pass it on to others in this country. However, the disease can still be brought into the country through visitors from foreign countries, meaning there should be no letup in childhood vaccinations.

'We must continue to keep immunizing'
“It is not the case we can stop immunizing. We must continue to keep immunizing,” said Dr. Greg Poland, professor of medicine and infectious disease at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. “Continued cases come in, particularly from the southern border. It’s still an active disease in Mexico.”

Poland said he saw a case of rubella just a few years ago in a pregnant migrant laborer living near Rochester.

Rubella typically causes a mild rash and, unlike measles, is not considered to be a serious illness for most people. However, the disease is much more hazardous for pregnant women.

When expectant mothers in their first trimester contract rubella, the risk of infection to the fetus can be 90 percent, often resulting in a miscarriage, stillbirth or severe birth defects.

Congenital rubella syndrome in infants is still a severe problem in other parts of the world, with more than 100,000 cases reported annually, according to a 2002 survey published by the CDC.

Only 11 cases of congenital rubella syndrome were reported in the United States in 2000 and 2001, the survey noted.

CDC officials declined to publicly discuss the rubella situation in advance of an official announcement Monday by the agency’s director, Dr. Julie Gerberding.

A vaccine for rubella was invented in 1969 by Dr. Maurice Hilleman, director of the Merck Institute for Vaccinology. In 1969, nearly 60,000 cases of rubella were reported in the United States. By 2000, only 176 cases were reported.

The CDC plans to honor Hilleman at the 39th National Immunization Conference next week in Washington.

Dr. Ronald Davis, a trustee at the American Medical Association, said the eradication of rubella among U.S. citizens gives the nation all the evidence it needs that it should do a better job at vaccinating the population from other diseases, such as influenza and hepatitis B.

He said he remains worried that some people will take the news about rubella the wrong way.

“What public health officials worry about is that when disease levels go down, public attention wanes and immunization rates may decline. Then the disease occurrence could rebound,” Davis said.

Children generally get their first vaccination dose for rubella at about 12 months of age. They are supposed to get a second dosage when they become of school age, Poland said.

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