The virus belongs to a class of pathogens called “teratogens” – literally: “monster makers”.
Yet, for decades, it flew under the radar. In children and adults, infection was mild: a bit of fever, an unimpressive rash. After a few days, the sick bounced back with no harm done.
Rubella was considered the mildest of childhood diseases. In a time of polio, rubella was ignored.
But an astute Australian ophthalmologist picked up on a disturbing pattern: nine months after a 1939 rubella epidemic, sixty-eight out of seventy-eight babies born blind were born to mothers infected with rubella in the first trimester of pregnancy. Over the next twenty years, research confirmed his findings.
Americans experienced the horrors of rubella in a massive outbreak between 1963 and 1964. Six thousand babies spontaneously aborted, two thousand babies died at birth.
Twenty thousand babies were born with damaged livers, pancreases, and brains. The babies suffered hepatitis, diabetes, mental retardation, blindness, deafness, epilepsy, and autism.
Eight or nine out of ten babies infected in the first trimester were damaged. That’s 85%.
An American vaccine scientist predicted another outbreak would occur sometime between 1970-1973. By 1965, he had developed a rubella vaccine, shown in testing to be safe and effective. By 1969, he had modified a version of the vaccine, and a hundred million doses were distributed throughout the United States.
Rubella epidemic averted.
Today, children are routinely vaccinated for rubella (it’s the “R” in the MMR vaccine). In 2005, the CDC declared rubella eliminated in the United States.
Everyone has heard of Albert Einstein, Jonas Salk, and Marie Curie, but Maurice Hilleman has saved more lives than any other scientist.
Maurice Hilleman is the father of modern vaccines. He is considered by many the greatest scientist of the 20th century, but few know his name.
Hilleman developed nine of the fifteen routine vaccines given to children today. Hilleman developed the first vaccine against human cancer, the hepatitis B vaccine. He developed and collaborated on many more vaccines, but never named any of them after himself, with one small exception…
The mumps vaccine in use today is manufactured using a strain of the virus Hilleman swabbed from the throat of his own little daughter when she awoke sick in the night. There’s a famous photo of Hilleman’s younger daughter, Kirsten, being vaccinated with the “Jeryl Lynn Mumps Vaccine”. Big sister Jeryl Lynn is close by, comforting her baby sister.
Despite responsibility for saving countless lives, no vaccine carries the name Hilleman.
We have collective short-term memories. When public health measures prevent or reduce the impact of a crisis, we forget what we were afraid of. When we dodge a bullet, we forget what won the battle.
No one knows Hilleman because few us know rubella. We aren’t afraid our teenagers will die of diphtheria. We don’t fear disability or death from polio, and we aren’t afraid our babies will die of measles or whooping cough. A generation does not fear mumps or chicken pox and the deadly complications that might follow.
At the end of his life, Hilleman’s groundbreaking MMR vaccine was the target for a rising anti-vaccination movement. A British doctor, Andrew Wakefield, claimed the MMR was responsible for an “epidemic” of autism. Hilleman died before Wakefield was discredited and lost his medical license for his fraudulent claims.
The general public has been harder to convince, however, and long-vanquished diseases are popping up in anti-vax hotspots.
We’ve forgotten what it was like.
When we flattened the Covid-curve, many declared “See! It’s all overblown! Back to business as usual! We aren’t afraid!”
Sometimes, what we don’t know (or don’t remember) can hurt us.
Maurice Hilleman would have been 101 this month.
And as You speak
A hundred billion creatures catch Your breath
Evolving in pursuit of what You said
If it all reveals Your nature so will I
(Hillsong United “So Will I“)