Tanzanian school girls during a measles-rubella catch-up campaign in 2014. Credit: Gavi/2014/Karel Prinsloo.
For such a mild virus, it inspired immense fear. As the disease spread, infecting 12.5 million people in the United States alone, so too did evidence of the birth defects it caused. Without a vaccine or cure, pregnant women were left vulnerable. This outbreak was not Zika in 2016, but rubella in the 1960s.
The first vaccine arrived soon after, in 1969, and the Americas were declared rubella free in 2015. The combined measles-rubella vaccine is now both relatively inexpensive and widely recommended, yet this disease continues to threaten mothers and disable 100,000 babies every year, mostly in developing countries. Why is this still happening?
Rubella demands a level of global prioritization that it simply has not received. The rubella vaccine is one of the best we have, requiring only one dose for individual protection. However, for effective disease prevention in the community, at least 80 percent of children must be vaccinated over a sustained period. That’s no small feat in any country, let alone the world’s poorer nations.