Rubella, also known as German measles (a misnomer), is a generally mild disease caused by a virus. Spread via respiratory droplets, it was very common in the United States and around the world for centuries. The disease was first identified by a German physician in 1619, but the virus that causes it was not isolated until 1962. In 1964, American physician Dr. Stanley Plotkin invented a vaccine that has since eliminated rubella in most of the world.
Because the vast majority of rubella cases are asymptomatic or cause only mild cold symptoms and a rash, public health authorities were for a long time not very concerned with the disease. However, in the 1940s researchers discovered a correlation with significant birth defects.
The last rubella epidemic in the US
In 1964 and 1965 there was a widespread epidemic of rubella in the United States. Some 12.5 million Americans were infected, including nearly 50,000 women who were at vulnerable stages of their pregnancies. Expectant mothers were rightfully concerned, but the outbreak did not cause the sort of widespread fear that we are currently experiencing with the novel coronavirus. In fact, many young girls and women participated in “German measles parties” during that time. They hoped to contract rubella and then benefit from a lifetime of immunity.
The CDC reports that, during the 1960s epidemic, the disease was responsible for over 13,000 miscarriages and stillbirths, and 20,000 cases of congenital rubella syndrome (CRS). CRS affects babies whose mothers were infected during pregnancy. It causes birth defects including deafness, heart problems, learning disabilities, and liver and spleen damage.
The rubella vaccine success story
Dr. Plotkin’s vaccine was not widely available until 1969. Its use dramatically reduced the annual number of infections around the world. In 2004 rubella was eliminated from the United States. As of 2018, 168 countries had introduced rubella vaccines and global case count dropped to 14,621.
However, the 87-year-old Plotkin’s work is not done. Known as the “godfather of vaccines,” the infectious disease specialist and professor currently advises vaccine companies, including six that are developing vaccines for the novel coronavirus. He has “considerable hope” for a vaccine that will bring an end to the current pandemic, although he warns that it will likely be a year before the product can be mass produced and distributed.