The 2015-2016 global Zika outbreak revealed that Zika–once considered harmless and extremely rare–actually caused devastating birth defects when contracted by pregnant women. Images of babies born with microcephaly (unusually small heads) dominated news cycles and caused widespread panic among women of childbearing age.
But did you know that the Zika outbreak wasn’t the first time this happened?
Rubella was a common childhood illness that ballooned into a public health menace during the 1940s, when a link was discovered between rubella infection in pregnancy and miscarriage and stillbirths, as well as blindness, deafness, and developmental disabilities in full-term babies. The U.S. was wracked with terrifying outbreaks until a vaccine was discovered in 1969. Rubella is now part of the ubiquitous MMR (measles-mumps-rubella) vaccine, given in childhood, and cases are exceedingly rare–allowing rubella outbreaks to fade in our collective memory enough for Zika to seem like a brand-new threat.
In addition to my work as a writer, I also work as a public health researcher, seeking to better understand the social effects of diseases like Zika and rubella and how we might lessen their impact in the future. I’m especially interested how fear of disability is used to motivate people to take steps to prevent diseases like Zika and rubella–and how that rhetoric might stigmatize people who already live with disabilities.
I’m currently in the process of analyzing public health posters aimed at educating the public about Zika and rubella for these kinds of messages.
I received research grants for this project from Hamline University, where I completed my undergraduate degree in Public Health Sciences, in the summers of 2016 and 2017.
- Midwest Sociology Society Annual Meeting, Minneapolis, MN, March 22-25, 2018.
- National Conference of Undergraduate Research, University of Central Oklahoma, April 4-7, 2018.
- Adrienne LaFrance, The Atlantic: “What Zika Researchers Can Learn from the Rubella Outbreak of 1964.”
- Jessica Ravitz, CNN: “Before Zika: The Virus That Helped Legalize Abortion in the U.S.“
- Leslie J. Reagan, University of California Press: Dangerous Pregnancies: Mothers, Disabilities, and Abortion in Modern America.
- CDC Global Health: “Similarities Between Zika and Rubella.”