Rubella: Why Its Appearance At A Detroit Auto Show Is A Problem

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Someone infected with the rubella virus attended the North American International Auto Show (NAIAS) at the Cobo Center in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)Getty

The U.S. has well over 99 problems but rubella shouldn’t be one of them. The rubella vaccination program, started in 1969, had helped eliminate rubella from the U.S. as of 2004. But these days, in 2019, with the anti-vaccination movement, things have changed.

Case in point. On February 1, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) announced that from January 13 to 15, someone infected with the rubella virus had attended the North American International Auto Show, which was held in Detroit. According a news report from WNDU 16, this person was not a Michigan resident and was visiting from another state. Even though rubella is otherwise known as the “German measles,” the rubella virus is different from the measles virus adn certainly isn’t confined to Germany or Germans. The rubella virus is quite contagious, more contagious than the flu virus, and readily spread by coughing and sneezing. As a result, the MDHHS warned that “individuals who may have been exposed and are unsure of their vaccination status should contact their healthcare provider with any questions.”

“Unsure of their vaccination status” is a polite way of saying “did you somehow not get the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine, which everyone should be getting as part of the routine series of childhood vaccinations?” Or “did you not do what billions of people around the world have done over the past several decades?” Or “do you actually believe that there is a viable alternative to vaccination to prevent rubella?”

Or maybe you think that rubella is no big deal, that it will just give you a temporary rash? Well, that type of thinking would be very rash. Sure, most people infected will have no or relatively mild symptoms. The hallmark symptom is a rash that first appears on your face and subsequently spreads to the rest of your body, typically lasting for 3 days or so. You may have other symptoms such as a low-grade fever, headache, sore throat, cough, runny nose, pink eye, swollen lymph nodes, and general discomfort, that could begin 1 to 5 days before the rash appears, as described by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Rubella infection can lead to miscarriages, stillbirths, and a range of birth defects. (Photo: Getty Images)Getty

The big deal, though, is what the rubella virus can do to your baby if you are pregnant. As the CDC describes, the last major rubella epidemic in the United States took place from 1964 to 1965, five years before the rubella vaccination program began. During this epidemic, “an estimated 12.5 million people got rubella, 11,000 pregnant women lost their babies, 2,100 newborns died, and 20,000 babies were born with congenital rubella syndrome (CRS).” Rubella infection, especially during the first trimester of your pregnancy, can result in miscarriages, still births, and a variety of birth defects that could affect nearly every part of your baby’s body. The term CRS encompasses this range of possibilities that includes deafness, cataracts, brain damage, intellectual disabilities, heart defects, and liver and spleen damage.

Fortunately, CRS is much less of a concern these days, thanks to the MMR vaccine. The rubella vaccination program helped take a contagious virus from being common and widespread to being extremely rare and virtually non-existent in the U.S.

However, things could change very quickly, thanks to the anti-vaccination movement. The rubella virus is still spreading in certain parts of the world that, surprise, surprise, don’t routinely give children the rubella vaccine. A single person infected with the rubella virus can then infect anywhere between 3 and 12 people who are not protected against the rubella virus, in other words, not vaccinated. You can see how rubella outbreaks could occur in places where people are not getting the MMR vaccine, just like the measles outbreak that is continuing in the state of Washington.

The only way to prevent such outbreaks is to make sure that as many people as possible are vaccinated against rubella. Getting the vaccine yourself will help protect you (and your baby) but no vaccine is 100% effective. A single dose of MMR vaccine can be 97% effective at protecting you from getting rubella, which is pretty darn good but not perfect. Therefore, it will also be important to prevent the rubella virus from circulating by making sure that everyone else is vaccinated. There is no scientifically proven alternative. No homeopathic regimen. No supplement. No potion. No special diet. No chiropractic manipulation.

Could rubella reappear in the same way measles has in the U.S., simply because people aren’t getting the MMR vaccine? That is a distinct possibility. Since 25% to 50% of those infected with the rubella virus don’t even show any symptoms, the virus could spread even more insidiously throughout the population. The threat of rubella virus is yet another reason why the World Health Organization (WHO) has listed “vaccine hesitancy” as one of the top 10 global health threats of 2019. This is also yet another example of recreating a problem that had previously been solved.

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