The Horror of German Measles in the 1960s and Today

Between 1964 and 1965, an epidemic of German Measles (rubella) swept through the United States. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the toll was heavy on pregnant women and newborns:

“Before the rubella vaccination program started in 1969, rubella was a common and widespread infection in the United States. During the last major rubella epidemic in the United States from 1964 to 1965, an estimated 12.5 million people got rubella, 11,000 pregnant women lost their babies, 2,100 newborns died, and 20,000 babies were born with congenital rubella syndrome (CRS). Once the vaccine became widely used, the number of people infected with rubella in the United States dropped dramatically.”

Yes, you read that right. There were thousands of lost pregnancies and thousands of dead newborns… And 20,000 babies with congenital rubella syndrome. The syndrome causes all sorts of complications for newborns, from cataracts in the eyes to heart problems, to intellectual disabilities. While not a death sentence on its own — especially with today’s medical technology — CRS can lead to a lifetime of disabilities. Just watch Ian’s Story:

So many children were born with CRS in that era that entire units in hospitals were dedicated to caring for children with CRS. Healthcare providers were trained on how to care for them as well.

Because of the rubella vaccine (which is now part of the MMR — measles, mumps and rubella — vaccine) the number of cases of CRS plummeted. According to CDC, there are only a handful of cases of CRS every year, and “(s)ince 2012, all rubella cases had evidence that they were infected when they were living or traveling outside the United States.”

Yes, there are still pockets of high incidence of rubella in the world. According to the World Health Organization, the Eastern Mediterranean and African regions are far below the vaccine coverage needed to prevent outbreaks of rubella, while Southeast Asia has almost caught up to Europe and the Americas, but is not quite at the level needed for herd immunity yet:

Screenshot 2019-11-24 17.36.23.png

As a result, there are places where rubella and CRS are being seen. To make matters worse, people who are not immune are traveling to those regions and bringing back rubella and other infectious diseases. This is how the recent measles epidemics were triggered in New York City and the Seattle region.

One can only wonder how much time will pass before we see increased rates of CRS in the United States as people refuse to vaccinate their children with the MMR vaccine. Just like all of those children were not immune and triggered the record measles epidemics this year, could they also be susceptible to rubella and trigger epidemics of it soon? Worse yet, could they catch it in their reproductive years and have children born with CRS?

Avatar

Author: René F. Najera, DrPH

I am the editor of the History of Vaccines site, an online project by the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. All opinions expressed on these blog posts are not necessarily those of the College or any of my employers. Check out my professional profile on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/renenajera Feel free to follow me on Twitter: @EpiRen

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.