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Rashes to Research

Rashes to Research: Scientists and Parents Confront the 1964 Rubella Epidemic
Images courtesy U.S. National Library of Medicine

Detail of “Differential Diagnosis of Rash Illnesses,” Merck Sharp & Dohme, 1983

Once called the “three-day measles”, Rubella was considered an annoying but minor childhood illness - until doctors realized that thousands of children born with serious birth defects had mothers who had contracted the disease.

Rashes to Research studies two sides of the 1964 rubella epidemic: families of babies with congenital rubella syndrome (CRS) fought for the right to care for their disabled children at home, while scientists worked tirelessly to develop a vaccine. These responses to the epidemic made impacts in education and healthcare that still benefit society today.

Research in the 1940s and 1950s linked rubella infection early in a woman’s pregnancy to miscarriage, stillbirths, and a variety of health problems for the unborn child. Children born with CRS often suffered serious heart conditions, hearing and vision problems, and even brain damage. By 1964, rubella had spread to epidemic proportions. From 1964 to 1965, thousands of families had lost an unborn child to CRS and tens of thousands were born with the disease.


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At that time, parents of children with birth defects were encouraged to institutionalize their children, which was standard protocol for those with disabilities. Many families though, opted to keep their children with CRS at home. This created a movement of advocacy by “rubella mothers” who fought for adequate in-home medical care and equal educational opportunities for their children. In addition, American women requested more control over their pregnancies and demanded access to therapeutic abortion. These determined mothers were the catalysts to widespread changes in medical care and educational opportunities for the disabled.
At the same time, scientists felt increasing pressure to develop a rubella vaccine and also improve screening techniques during pregnancies. Two researchers at the National Institutes of Health, Dr. Harry M. Meyer, Jr. and Dr. Paul Parkman, developed a vaccine and a more accurate blood test to screen for rubella. The NIH’s Division of Biologic Standards approved the first commercial rubella vaccine in June of 1969. The vast majority of Americans today never consider the possibility of contracting a disease that once struck terror in the hearts of young families across the country.
Doctors Harry M. Meyer, Jr. (1928-2001), left, and Paul Parkman (b. 1932), right, developed the rubella vaccine, Bethesda, Maryland, 1967
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Explore the effects of the rubella epidemic and its impact in the United States at the Rashes to Research exhibit, on display November 19 through December 24 at Middendorf-Kredell Branch, courtesy of the History of Medicine Division of the National Library of Medicine.