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Rubella Epidemic of 1964-65

It’s time to tell my story. I’ve seen the vaccination rates for Vashon Island and read the articles and it alarms me. We have 17% of parents opting out of very necessary vaccinations. That’s compared to 3% statewide1. In the interest of fully informing parents I offer my story.
My first ever full-time teaching assignment was with deaf-blind children in Seattle. I had already worked with these children as a classroom assistant and had come to love each and every one of them. I also knew the incredible job I had before me and spent hours reading research that would help me with the challenge of teaching children with multiple sensory deficits.
Half of my class suffered from what is called Congenital Rubella Syndrome. They had contracted this syndrome during the Rubella epidemic of 1964-65. During those two years 20,000 cases of Congenital Rubella Syndrome were reported.2 Congenital Rubella Syndrome is a congenital disorder acquired by a fetus in the first trimester of pregnancy. CRS is known to cause multiple disorders like deafness, blindness, cerebral palsy, heart problems, etc. Many scientists also believe that Rubella can remain dormant in these children for many years and then attack their nervous systems later in life.
One of my CRS students, call her Daphne, was 11 years old. She was blind, deaf and had a kind of cerebral palsy that caused her to constantly shake when she walked, which she was able to do only with a walker. What I loved about Daphne was her sense of humor and curiosity. Unlike other blind students, she would occasionally reach out physically and explore her environment. She became more independent than others even with those physical disabilities and entered into our classroom activities readily. Even so, learning was extremely difficult and slow. I worked to teach her "object permanence" so she would know things didn’t just disappear when she was not in direct contact with them. After constant repetition she learned to sign "toilet" and "more". These are skills most children acquire at 18 months or earlier.
Daphne’s mother could have become infected with the Rubella virus even before she knew she was pregnant. Scientists have now concluded that even if Daphne’s mother had been infected with Rubella 28 days before conception, there was almost a 50% chance her fetus would be damaged! She could have been infected by someone who showed no symptoms or she could have had Rubella with few symptoms herself. I remember being infected with Rubella myself while working in my high school nurse’s office during the epidemic of ‘64.
Daphne’s story ended tragically. Years after I left that classroom I was again scheduled to have Daphne in my two-hour a day special education class for deaf-blind adolescents. I was so excited! But Daphne never showed up. She had a seizure that lasted for an hour and a half. She lost her ability to sign, feed herself - everything I had worked to teach her in those early years. A few months later, shortly after her 18th birthday, Daphne died. I attended her funeral. Next time you think of Rubella as a harmless children’s disease, think of Daphne. Consider the heartbreak of her mother who had to watch her child struggle to live and finally die at an all-too-early age.
There was no vaccine before Daphne was born (it was licensed in 19693).
Since the vaccine has been put on a recommended immunization list for children, cases of Rubella and Congenital Rubella Syndrome have dropped precipitously. But we could have another epidemic if we decide to ignore the facts. Rubella can still be imported from other countries and it’s on the rise in Japan.4 Without protection, there could be more children like Daphne. The vaccine was too late for her. But it’s not too late for future unborn children if we work together to have the highest immunity rate in Washington, not the lowest (only Orchard Prairie School District is lower). After all, Vashon Island takes pride in being more than just a place to live. We care about each other.
Do the responsible thing. Immunize your child. There is no scientific reason to fear these vaccines but every reason to fear the diseases they are designed to prevent.