Chew On This, Anti-Vaxxers: America Has Wiped Out Rubella
In case you missed it with all the hoopla over the NFL draft, the World Health Organization made a big announcement last week: Rubella has been completely eliminated in the 45 nations that make up North and South America.
How was this done? Suck it, Chris Christie, Jenny McCarthy and Oprah: It was done with vaccines.
When I was pregnant with my kids in the late ’80s and early ’90s, rubella, also known as German measles, was still a force to be feared. It’s not that dangerous for children and most adults; its symptoms — a measles-like rash, fever, sore throat, joint pain — are fairly mild. But those who get infected can spread the disease for as much as a week before they develop the telltale rash. And in pregnant women, a rubella infection can result in children born with what’s called congenital rubella syndrome, or CRS. As many as 85 percent of the babies born to women who contract rubella in the first trimester of pregnancy have birth defects.
A worldwide rubella pandemic in the mid-1960s infected 12 and a half million people in the U.S. and resulted in 20,000 CRS births. Eleven thousand of those babies were deaf; 3,500 were blind; 1,800 were mentally retarded. That’s when the kids were born at all; there were also 13,000 stillbirths, miscarriages and medically indicated abortions caused by CRS.
The tripartite MMR vaccine that today protects kids against the viruses that cause rubella, its cousin measles and the mumps came into production in the early ’70s. The rubella component is 95 percent effective. In the Americas, the last cases of rubella (and of CRS) occurred in Argentina and Brazil six years ago. A disease is considered “eliminated” when there are no new cases for at least three years. Disease “eradication” — the total elimination of a virus — is harder. Smallpox is the only human disease ever to have been eradicated from the face of the Earth — via a vaccine. God willing, polio will be the next. Near eradication just a few years ago, it’s been showing up in developing countries of late, leading the WHO to issue a global health emergency last year. And a mysterious disease causing paralysis in California kids could be a cousin of the virus causing polio.
Regular old measles was declared eliminated from the U.S. back in 2000. But an outbreak earlier this year has been traced to an unvaccinated child (or children) visiting Disneyworld. Of 133 confirmed cases, 51 occurred in unvaccinated kids. Measles is one of the world’s most contagious diseases; scientists estimate that a vaccination rate of 96 percent is needed to confer “herd immunity” and prevent its spread.
Meanwhile, MMR is the vaccine that anti-vaxxers like Charlie Sheen, Donald Trump, Kristin Cavallari, Holly Robinson Peete, Aidan Quinn and Robert F. Kennedy Jr. publicly rail against, claiming it causes autism even though the research by an English physician who first linked the two has been shown to be a deliberate fraud, and numerous subsequent studies — the latest an examination, published last month in the Journal of the American Medical Association, of 95,000 children across the U.S. — have shown no link.
The anti-vaxxers won’t care. They burn with selfish zealotry; they care only about their own kids, not other people’s. In California today, nearly 10 percent of kindergartners start school without being fully vaccinated. So much for herd immunity.
Hey, you can take your medical advice from Charlie Sheen and Donald Trump and Kristin Cavallari, or you can take it from JAMA. It’s a free country. Just try to remember that if measles comes roaring back because parents won’t vaccinate their children, it’s bringing mumps and rubella with it — and the heartbreak of all those deaf, blind and intellectually disabled babies, too. One of those babies could be yours.
Follow @SandyHingston on Twitter.