The rubella vaccine | Action Medical Research

Touching Lives - March 2004

The rubella vaccine

While it causes a mild illness in children, and is only slightly more serious where adolescents and adults are infected, it normally gives no cause for concern at all.

However, eradicating rubella has been a focus of much Action Medical Research funded work in the past. This is because if a woman becomes infected with the virus during the first four months of pregnancy, it passes to the developing baby and can cause severe birth defects such as deafness, blindness, congenital heart defects and cerebral palsy.

^Action Medical Research’s involvement with rubella research dates right back to the very first years of the Charity^, when the first tests were done by Dr Kevin McCarthy and his team to screen the different strains of the virus and identify how dangerous each was.

While there was initially some hope that a drug could be developed to kill the virus, it soon became apparent that anti-viral drugs were (and are to this day) very difficult to produce. Prevention by vaccination was clearly the way forward.

Throughout the late 1960s, Dr McCarthy and Dr Alistair Dudgeon, based at Great Ormond Street Hospital in London, continued working on developing a vaccine. One of the major problems for Dr Dudgeon was finding a way of testing the vaccine.

The vaccine included a damaged, live rubella virus and, while the hope was that these weakened viruses would trigger immunity without causing the symptoms of infection, there was a danger that the vaccine would still be able to cause disease.

Nuns lend a hand

Dr Dudgeon hit upon the idea of approaching a closed order of nuns for help with testing the vaccine. These women not only had little or no contact with people outside their communities, thereby minimising the risk of infection, but none of them would be pregnant.

The worst that could happen was that there would be an outbreak of German Measles among the nuns. With the nuns’ co-operation, ^Dr Dudgeon was able to demonstrate that the vaccine virus did not pass from person to person, gave long-lasting immunity, and was safe^.

From 1970 the vaccine has been offered to girls around puberty, with good success rates where taken up. However, as boys were not given the vaccine, and not all girls took up the offer, the virus itself was always at large. It wasn’t until the arrival of the MMR vaccine in 1988 that it was possible to set up a vaccination programme that could protect everyone from rubella.

While there has been a great deal of debate in recent years about the safety of the MMR vaccine, Action Medical Research is committed to research into vaccination as a crucial weapon in the armoury against infectious diseases. Rubella is just one of the diseases that effective vaccination could eradicate worldwide.

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