The Current

What rubella vaccine can teach us about fighting Zika virus

Against the backdrop of the hunt for a vaccine to fight the Zika virus, journalist and doctor Meredith Wadman examines the science and politics behind the creation of the rubella vaccine.
Science writer Meredith Wadman says the race to develop the rubella vaccine holds some important lessons for the world today, just as the need to treat the Zika virus heats up. (Mikhail Mordasov/AFP/Getty Images)

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A 1964 outbreak of rubella made the quest to develop a vaccine for the disease even more urgent.

Rubella, commonly called German measles, is usually a mild illness. But for pregnant women, the impact on the fetus can be devastating. The '60s outbreak affected 20,000 babies in the United States, who were born with crippling birth defects. 

The Vaccine Race by journalist and doctor Meredith Wadman tells the story of the scientists who worked to develop the vaccine. And as Wadman tells The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti, it's not a story without controversy. 

It starts with cells from an aborted fetus, taken without permission from the mother who was never compensated. The healthy cells turned out to be incredibly valuable, being used to develop the rubella vaccine and others. They're still being used today.'

Meredith Wadman say vaccines were tested on orphans, prisoners and premature infants right up until the mid 1970s. (Johnny Shryock)

The vaccine itself was tested on orphans  —  a common practice at the time — and was also tested on prisoners and premature infants right up until the mid '70s. 

"There was a sense of medical entitlement to institutionalized populations," says Wadman.

The development was hampered by politics. 

The story of the rubella vaccine has significance today, says Wadman, because vaccine development is still delayed by political wrangling.

In Feb. 2016, Barack Obama asked Congress for $1.9 billion to hasten the development of a Zika vaccine.

But Wadman tells Tremonti the funding for development of a vaccine to fight the Zika virus was held up for months in Congress and in that delay 1,500 babies were born with Zika.

Wadman is hopeful that U.S. President Donald Trump will work towards important vaccine development. 

"What is needed is a fund that can be called on in emergencies like Zika that is insulated from the day-to-day politicking on Capitol Hill," says Wadman.

"Just last month we learned that the World Health Organization now says it will be 2020 at the earliest before a Zika vaccine that is safe for women of childbearing age is developed and available," she adds.

Wadman suggests that one of the reasons an anti-vaccine movement exists — one she says is a "small vocal minority" — is largely because people don't see the powerful images of a child in an iron lung with polio or a toddler that succumbed to measles.

"Vaccines have been a victim of their own success: we don't see the diseases that they protect against so complacency can set in," she explains.

"We need to recover these stories from the bad old days in order to resist that complacency."

Listen to the full segment at the top of this web post.

This segment was produced by The Current's Liz Hoath.