Passing of the TORCH: A Medical, Historical, and Social Comparison between Rubella and Zika

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Medicine and Health Sciences


A historical analysis and comparison between rubella and zika reveals that neither virus became prominent until their respective congenital syndromes were classified. Rubella was first described in the 1750s but took until 1941 when Norman McAlister Gregg characterized Congenital Rubella Syndrome to become medically significant. Similarly, zika virus was discovered in 1947 but only made headlines in 2016 when its infection during pregnancy was associated with fetal microcephaly. An investigation into the response levels that each virus received following the discovery of their respective congenital syndromes reveals a fascinating correlation. Despite zika being primarily a disease of the developing world and rubella historically being a worldwide disease, with a previously high prevalence in developed countries such as the United States (US), zika was found to have been studied and controlled at a much faster rate than rubella. This correlation is further highlighted by the fact that there are currently no available therapies or vaccines for zika. Using the US as a benchmark, the rubella vaccine was available in 1969 following the rubella epidemic of 1964-1965. However, it would take until 2004 before the US was declared rubella free. When compared to zika, following the 2015-2016 outbreak in the Americas, the incidence of zika in the US went from 10 cases in 2015 to a staggering 36,512 cases in 2016. Remarkably, by the end of the following year, the incidence had dropped to just 666 cases in the states. In 2018, there were only 148 zika cases in the US. A review of Thomas McKeown’s work on population growth, the McKeown Thesis, provides insight into the US’s successful zika control. The Thesis posits that broad-based social efforts at the population level are more significant at affecting public health than narrow-based medical interventions at the individual level. The swift control of zika despite the lack of specific therapeutics suggests the McKeown Thesis’s applications. This presentation provides an in-depth analysis and comparison between the medical, historical, and social components of rubella and zika to demonstrate their ongoing implications and influences on society. This presentation will reflect on the progress and history of medicine within the past century and demonstrate the need for continued vigilance within the medical community.


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