Detroit Auto Show Attendees Exposed to Rubella, an Eradicated Disease

New cars, retro disease. 

As attendees at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit were taking in the future of transportation, they may have also been exposed to a disease that, until recently, was considered distant history. On Friday, Michigan’s public health authority confirmed that rubella made an appearance at the auto show in Detroit earlier this January. The incident marks the first case of rubella in Michigan reported since 2007, reports the Associated Press.

Rubella, which looks so similar to the measles that it’s sometimes called “German measles,” isn’t as dangerous as the measles itself — which, coincidentally, is currently sweeping through Clark County, Washington. For most people, rubella is a mild illness that causes a rash, fever, and discomfort. But it’s also an airborne, highly contagious disease that can cause miscarriages or birth defects when pregnant women contract it and pass the virus to their developing child.

Given those risks, Michigan’s Department of Health and Human Services issued an announcement on Friday, warning that anyone who attended the auto show between January 14 and 27 may have been exposed. The actual infected individual, they clarify, was from a different state, though they didn’t actually name that other state.

People at the 2019 Detroit Auto Show may have been exposed to rubella, which was declared eradicated in the United States in 2004. 

Flickr/Joe Ross 

Still, even the brief presence of an individual infected with rubella at the auto show is significant because rubella can spread quickly among people who haven’t received the MMR vaccine, which protects against measles, mumps, and rubella. Before the development of the MMR vaccine, a 1964 outbreak of rubella infected nearly 12.5 million people. Nearly 2,100 newborns died as a result, reports the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Nowadays, the MMR vaccine is so effective that the disease no longer poses the same threat it used to. But as effective as the MMR vaccine is, it only works for people who have received it, and it can only protect against the disease, not treat it. Michigan’s announcement is intended to put anyone who attended the auto show but hasn’t received the 97-percent effective vaccine on alert.

Reporting cases early, as well as helping track where the airborne vaccine may or may not have traveled, will be crucial as public health authorities try to figure how who else may have been exposed — and if the disease is at risk of spreading farther. This has already been part of the outbreak management plan for measles in the state of Washington, where public health authorities list every location visited by someone who later reported an infection. But at least in Washington, measles is spreading faster than the information about it is forcing the state to declare a public health emergency.

In 1964, a rubella outbreak affected 12.5 million people in the United States. 

Public Health Image Library 

Although rubella was officially declared eradicated in 2004, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the disease is totally gone for good. There are still a handful of rubella cases each year. On its own, it’s not terribly frightening to see a single case of rubella at the auto show, but it is a bit concerning that this is coming right on the heels of another outbreak in the Pacific Northwest, where measles has been spreading amongst un-immunized individuals.

While the rubella case in Michigan is a separate (yet related) disease from the Pacific Northwest measles outbreak, it is a sad reminder that these diseases, as rare as they are, can seize the opportunity to infect people who don’t receive the vaccine. Hopefully, Michigan and whatever the “other state” that may have played host to this rubella case can learn from Washington’s plight and contain the spread of the disease.

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