Allison had never met the woman who rang her doorbell one wet, bone-chilling Saturday morning in October. But after Allison welcomed Liz Lipman-Stern into her cozy New York City apartment, the two mothers faced each other for only a few seconds before embracing.
“Thank you,” Lipman-Stern murmured, her voice heavy with gratitude.
Allison pulled away and strode to a waist-high deep freezer in a corner of her living room. She withdrew two clear gallon-size bags, each containing smaller frozen pouches of a creamy, pale yellow liquid — Allison’s breast milk. Lipman-Stern took them gingerly and knelt to pack them into two coolers she’d brought as she and Allison exchanged tales of diaper rash. When the milk was secure, Lipman-Stern headed back out into the rain.
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The early part of the 1960s was a particularly harrowing time for a woman to become pregnant. From 1962 to 1965, a virus of global pandemic proportions was wreaking havoc on fetuses, causing miscarriages and birth defects, and although work on a vaccine was underway, it would not become commercially available until 1969.
The virus was rubella, and the terror it caused in the United States has largely faded from public memory. But Louis Cooper and Stanley Plotkin — doctors who were on the front lines of the epidemic and who both worked to develop vaccines for the virus — have not forgotten. In interviews, they recounted the uncertainty, fear and agonizing choices pregnant women faced during those years. The scenario is one to which a spreading outbreak of Zika virus in the Americas is starting to bear eerie resemblance, in a sign that the U.S. may not be so removed as it thinks from the scourge of infectious disease.
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