We don’t hear a lot about rubella these days. It’s just the R in the MMR vaccine.
But just a few decades ago, it was a word that was terrifying to pregnant women. If they caught rubella – also known as German measles – in their first three months of pregnancy, they had an 80 per cent chance of miscarrying or having a baby with birth defects.
It was back in the 1940s that a Sydney ophthalmologist, Dr Norman Gregg, became concerned about the high number of babies being brought to see him with cataracts. He heard two mums sitting outside his office discussing how they’d both had German measles when they were pregnant.
Looking into it, he found that nearly all the babies with cataracts had mothers who’d caught rubella in their first trimester. He also noticed that these rubella babies had other things in common. A lot of them had heart defects and were “of small size, ill nourished and difficult to feed”. Many were also deaf.
It was during WWII, and Sydney was experiencing an epidemic of rubella, which had begun among soldiers in army camps and spread into the rest of the community.
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Dr Gregg gathered his evidence about the effects of rubella on unborn children and presented it to an international meeting of eye surgeons. Many of the overseas surgeons doubted him, but eventually they had to accept that this Australian had made a major breakthrough. It would be another two decades, though, before a vaccine came along.
From 1963 to 1965, a rubella epidemic swept across the US. In that time, 20,000 babies were born with congenital rubella syndrome, not counting the many thousands lost to miscarriage and stillbirth. Those 20,000 rubella babies faced a lifetime of problems: blindness, deafness, heart disease, intellectual disabilities and autism.
As the number of rubella babies grew, pregnant women realised what they were facing: giving birth to children who may need around-the-clock care for the rest of their lives. Dr Gregg was quoted as saying that he “would not allow the pregnancy to continue if the circumstances arose in my own family”.
Although abortion was largely illegal in the US, some doctors began offering it to pregnant women who had contracted rubella.
Wealthy women who weren’t offered the option were able to fly to Mexico or the UK for the procedure. Other women, whose had their request for an abortion denied and gave birth to severely disabled babies, took their cases to court. Ultimately, the open discussion about rubella and abortion helped pave the way for the 1973 Roe v Wade case that legalised abortion in the US.
Florence Woodford was one of the pregnant women offered an abortion in the early 1960s after contracting rubella. But being a devout Catholic, she decided to keep her baby. Kim was born with cataracts, and Florence tells CNN that she rejoiced at first.
“’Oh, that’s wonderful. That’ll be OK. We could fix that,’” Florence remembers thinking. “And then as time went on, we found out it was a lot more than that.”
It turned out that Kim was not just legally blind, but also completely deaf. She needed heart surgery as a child. As she grew older, it became clear that she was intellectually disabled, and had behaviour disorders and autistic tendencies.