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The Zika virus is making headlines because of its potential links to birth defects. Half a century ago, the big scare was rubella. And NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce reports the danger is still there, with around 300 infants born with damage from rubella every day.
NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: Rubella, or German measles, made the cover of Life magazine in 1965. Back then, the magazine warned that the outbreak would harm up to 20,000 babies in the United States. Stanley Plotkin says that's surely an underestimate.
STANLEY PLOTKIN: I calculated that 1 percent - 1 out of 100 pregnancies in Philadelphia - were affected by rubella.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Philadelphia was where Plotkin was working at the time, trying to develop a vaccine for rubella. In the 1960s, his lab was one of the few that could diagnose this illness which typically causes just a mild rash or no symptoms at all, just like Zika.
PLOTKIN: I was constantly seeing women who wanted to know if they had been infected, speaking with obstetricians who were either doing therapeutic abortions or delivering babies with congenital rubella.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Congenital rubella causes problems like deafness, heart defects, and microcephaly. That's the brain abnormality that's caused such alarm with Zika. Right now, researchers are trying to figure out how much risk Zika virus poses to a fetus. And Plotkin says it's deja vu for folks who lived through the massive rubella outbreak decades ago.
PLOTKIN: It enabled the virologists - among them, myself - to describe in detail what the virus was doing and to show beyond any doubt that the virus was infecting the fetus and causing the abnormalities.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Another physician-researcher named Louie Cooper had a small lab in New York that was overwhelmed with women seeking tests and information. Cooper says the outbreak forced social changes, like easier access to abortion.
LOUIE COOPER: Before Roe v. Wade, because of the rubella outbreak, we were able to pass much more liberalized right to abortion in New York State.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: He says rubella also pushed the federal government to create new programs for special education. He became very close to families affected by rubella and feels deeply for women who now face Zika.
COOPER: At the moment, we have no way to stop the infection, and it doesn't look as if we have any way to reduce the risk to the developing babies. How much that risk is, that hasn't been quantitated yet.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: For rubella, the big change was the vaccine. The first vaccine became available in 1969. And last year, public health officials said rubella had been completely eliminated from the Americas. But elsewhere, it's still a real threat. More than half of the babies in the world do not have access to rubella vaccine. Susan Reef is with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
SUSAN REEF: There's about a hundred thousand infants born each year with CRS.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: So you're telling me that every year now, there's a hundred thousands babies in the world born with congenital rubella syndrome.
REEF: Yes, that's what we estimate - yes.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: And this is for a disease where we had an effective vaccine in 1969.
REEF: That's correct.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: She says the vaccine costs about 50 cents, but a lot of countries haven't pursued rubella vaccination.
REEF: Countries like India, Indonesia, Nigeria, Afghanistan, Pakistan.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: She says some countries have started to introduce this vaccine, and progress is being made. But it's happening slowly. Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.
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