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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