U.S. National Institutes of Health

Pregnant Women Used to Fear Rubella.

Once considered little more than a minor childhood illness, rubella’s dangers hid in plain sight. Research in the 1940s and 1950s linked rubella infection early in a woman’s pregnancy to miscarriage, stillbirth, and a constellation of health problems known as congenital rubella syndrome (CRS). Children with CRS may be born with hearing, vision, or heart conditions, cognitive disabilities, and more.

During the rubella epidemic that raged in 1964 and 1965, 20,000 children were born with serious heart, hearing, and vision problems related to rubella exposure during pregnancy. Tens of thousands more families lost or terminated their pregnancies.

Increasingly aware of the risks associated with rubella exposure, thanks to coverage in popular media, American women requested more control over their pregnancies and access to all their pregnancy options—including therapeutic abortion.

Some of the parents of children born with congenital rubella syndrome (CRS) resisted the institutionalization of their children, then the standard of care for people with disabilities. They wanted to keep their children at home. These so-called “rubella mothers” became early advocates on behalf of people with disabilities when they insisted on adequate medical care and equal educational opportunities for their kids.

At the same time, scientists worked to develop a rubella vaccine and improve screening techniques. The researchers were motivated by their knowledge that rubella posed the greatest risk to young, growing families, and that women exposed to rubella were forced to make difficult decisions about their pregnancies.

Two researchers at the National Institutes of Health’s Division of Biologics Standards (DBS), Doctors Harry M. Meyer, Jr. and Paul Parkman, developed a vaccine and a better blood test to screen people for rubella. The NIH’s Division of Biologic Standards approved the first commercial rubella vaccine in June 1969.

Explore how experts and parents tried to limit rubella’s impact in the years before an effective vaccine nearly eliminated the disease from the United States.

"We’re going to stop this in time"
- Paul Parkman, MD in a 2005 oral history
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