Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Rubella: the Unborn Pay the Price


In 1972, Anna and Robert Robak visited the doctor; Anna was pregnant, and she also had a rash and a fever. Although a first test came out negative for rubella, a second test came out positive – but the medical staff did not inform Anna of that fact. Their daughter, Jennifer (Jenny) Robak, was born on January 12, 1973. The court case describing their story focused on whether Anne can sue the doctors from not alerting her to the fact that she had rubella – information that would probably have led her to abort the baby, because of the potential harm to Jenny from the virus. Indeed,  Jenny had Congenital Rubella Syndrome, and suffered serious harm from it. 

The court described the effects on the child: “At the time of her birth, Jennifer had a rash all over her body. She was also suffering from a loss of hearing, bilateral cataracts, a slight heart defect and possible mental retardation all common symptoms of a rubella syndrome child. Since then, Jennifer Robak has undergone two operations to remove cataracts. She has undertaken occupational and physical therapy and special training and education for the deaf-blind. She is industrially blind and has a severe to profound hearing loss; she cannot speak intelligibly. Glasses, contact lenses and hearing aids have been of only limited use. She will need deaf-blind care and supervision for the remainder of her life, as well as further operations.”

Jenny is just one of the many children harmed when their mothers had rubella during the first trimester of pregnancy. Rubella is normally a mild childhood illness, but if it affects a woman in the first 16 weeks of pregnancy, it can have devastating consequences for the fetus. The CDC explains: “During the 1962–1965 global rubella pandemic, an estimated 12.5 million rubella cases occurred in the United States, resulting in 2,000 cases of encephalitis, 11,250 therapeutic or spontaneous abortions, 2,100 neonatal deaths, and 20,000 infants born with CRS.” 
Children suffering from Congenital Rubella Syndrome – the ones that survive – often have severe vision and hearing problems as well as other problems. A vaccine expert writes: “..no organism is more common, more thorough, or more consistent in its destruction of unborn children than the rubella virus.”[1]
Here is a story from another mother who describes her daughter’s problems as relatively “minor”, which she attributes to the immune-globulin she received when pregnant:
“She had congenital cataracts, a mild hearing loss, very mild cerebral palsy and an atral-septal defect in her heart that closed on its own about age 4.

Overall, her development was quite slow. She didn’t walk and talk until she was 3 and 4 years old. In that respect, the congenital rubella showed its effects. She gained weight slowly. When she was 4-yrs. old, she developed glaucoma in her right eye which led to its removal. Her left eye still had some vision, but she was classified as “legally blind.” “

Not surprising, before vaccines parents were anxious to make sure their daughters contracted rubella at an early age, before the possibility of pregnancy arose. Jean said: "My mother made certain that I attended “rubella parties” until I contracted the seemingly innocuous 3-day rash. Every mother knew that contracting rubella during pregnancy could lead to miscarriage and horrific medical consequences for babies infected in utero (the vaccine was not available until the late 1960s)". And pregnant women worried. Annie remembers vividly what happened to her mother. Annie was part of a family of seven, five living children born out of 8 pregnancies. Annie’s mother did not develop natural immunity to childhood diseases. She had rubella eight times, says Annie. She lost two unborn babies to rubella and one to measles. Annie says:  “I remember I was feeling a little ill. [her mother] called me into the bathroom and asked to see my tummy and back. She took a deep breath, said German measles [rubella is also called German measles] and started to cry. Then she looked at herself. She was pregnant. The next day she was in hospital...she cried tears of JOY when she miscarried her two-months baby. I now know why. Deafness, blindness, retardation. These things were REAL to her generation and mine.”

Meleese, who taught at an elementary school, found herself teaching the younger class for the deaf students, even though she was not trained (she went and got trained the following year). She taught children from preschool to age 8, with 5 or 6 in the class at a time. Except for one little girl who had meningitis as a baby, all were rendered deaf through Congenital Rubella Syndrome.

Meleese herself had the misfortune to get rubella at an older age, at 21, while at teacher’s college. She describes the experience: “My mother thought I must have already had it and she didn't know as I was always around outbreaks once even on a church camp. When I did get it I was the only one in the residence to get it. I had so many spots they were all joined together and I looked sunburned. My mouth and throat ulcerated and I was so sick I needed 3 weeks off lectures.” The “housemother” where she lived sent for a doctor, and Meleese was given several prescription medicine. For three weeks she hardly left her room, with the housemother bringing her her meals. She says: “The scary thing looking back was 4 girls got pregnant that year and "had" to get married( those were the days!). I lived with them and had lectures with them. Imagine if I had passed it onto them!”

The rubella vaccine is controversial because the virus is grown on cell line taken from a legal abortion in the 1960s.  The abortions were not performed for donating the cell lines – and it is illegal to perform abortions for that purpose. Nonetheless, people who are pro-life may understandably object to having to make the choice and may have doubts about using the vaccine. Here is a meme addressing this:


Courtesy of Refutations to Anti-Vaccine Memes, found at: https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=507352126001468&set=pb.414643305272351.-2207520000.1373960888.&type=3&theater

The main points to remember are that rubella vaccine saves fetuses, since rubella can cause not only fetal death, but also malformations that can lead people to choose abortion, and that the virus for the vaccine is grown on a cell line descended from just one legal abortion in the 1960s.  The vaccine does not include fetal cells, and any claim that vaccine production involves (requires?) aborting fetuses now is simply wrong. 

Because of its potential to save fetal lives, the Roman Catholic Church, a body that strongly opposes abortions, recommends the rubella vaccine.  It has issued an official opinion that warns: “This [the need to accept the vaccine to prevent greater danger] is particularly true in the case of vaccination against German measles, because of the danger of Congenital Rubella Syndrome. This could occur, causing grave congenital malformations in the foetus, when a pregnant woman enters into contact, even if it is brief, with children who have not been immunized and are carriers of the virus. In this case, the parents who did not accept the vaccination of their own children become responsible for the malformations in question, and for the subsequent abortion of foetuses, when they have been discovered to be malformed.”[2]

This post also analyzes the issue from a pro life perspective, concluding: “The cells that were taken from the two aborted babies more than 35 years ago are much like my loved one's heart. Two innocent babies were killed. However, they were able to donate something that has been used not only to make vaccines, but in many medical research projects over the years. Thus, these cells have been saving millions of lives for almost two generations! Although the babies were clearly murdered, the fact that their cells have been saving lives is at least a silver lining in the dark cloud of their tragic murder.” 



Rubella still harms children even in the first world in places like the “bible belt” in the Netherlands, Japan and Poland, and recently seems to have come back to the United States. The rubella component of the MMR can save the lives of fetuses and save babies from disability and suffering. For these children’s sakes, it’s important to vaccinate.

Acknowledgements:  I am grateful to Alice Warning Wasney, Meleese and Annie for feedback on drafts of this post. 



[1] Paul A. Offit, Vaccinated: Triumph, Controversy, and an Uncertain Future (2009), p. 71.
[2] Footnote 15.

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