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Rubella offers glimpse at future for Zika kids​
05:38 - Source: CNN

Story highlights

Babies with multiple birth defects were born to US women infected with the rubella virus in the 1960s

What these families have needed may signal what's in store for Zika babies

Brooklyn, New York CNN  — 

One side of the bedroom is an explosion of pink, from the hair accessories and dangling trinkets to the stuffed animals and laundry hamper. The other, starting with the fuzzy pillows and puffy comforter, is an ode to purple.

Kim Woodford is the pink aficionado in this well-kept townhome in Brooklyn. She’s 51 and believes in Santa. Her roommate, Darvena Idlet, is the same age; they’ve lived together for about 45 years.

What bound these women together so long ago was an illness that struck while they were in their mothers’ wombs. It robbed them of their hearing and much of their vision, and it damaged their brains.

They have congenital rubella syndrome, which they acquired during an outbreak of the rubella virus, or German measles. The epidemic swept across America from late 1963 into 1965, infecting an estimated 12.5 million people. And though the symptoms of the virus are generally minor, if detected at all, it takes its harshest toll on the unborn babies of infected pregnant women.

The story of Kim and Darvena, and thousands of others like them, has largely been forgotten in the United States. But the threat posed by a new virus, Zika, has those intimately familiar with the 1960s rubella outbreak asking pointed questions.

Who is going to take care of the babies irreparably damaged after being born to Zika-infected women? What resources will be available to their families, whose lives will be forever changed? Who’ll step in to help those mothers left alone after fathers walk away? And what will become of these children when they are adults still in need of around-the-clock care?

What happened more than a half century ago, they say, should serve as a warning now.

Kim Woodford, who stared at medical entries in encyclopedias as a child, might have been a doctor, her family says.

Hoping for the best

Florence Woodford knew her baby might be harmed when she contracted the rubella virus early in her pregnancy. A doctor with the health department who paid a visit to her Brooklyn home told her as much. If her child survived, he said, she or he could be saddled with a long list of disabilities.