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  • Updated 01.30.2024
  • Released 08.10.1993
  • Expires For CME 01.30.2027

Congenital rubella



Congenital rubella infection classically causes a severe syndrome with multi-organ manifestations encompassing visual, hearing, and neurologic disabilities; it may, however, also present with more subtle findings that can lead to significant diagnostic delays if the treating physician is not familiar with the consequences of maternal rubella infection. Although widespread vaccination programs have significantly reduced the global burden of rubella, rubella persists as an important pathogen that remains endemic in many regions of the world, and its varied presentation requires vigilance on behalf of health providers.

Key points

• Rubella infection rates and risk of congenital rubella syndrome are highest during the first trimester of pregnancy and during primary infection of the pregnant mother.

• Because the virus may persist for up to 1 year of age, pregnant women should not handle or expose themselves to congenitally infected infants.

• Despite high vaccine coverage, rubella infection persists in unimmunized groups, those with low seroconversion status, or as a result of reinfection.

Historical note and terminology

In the mid-18th century, rubella (German measles) was termed "Rötheln" and was considered to be a lesser form of measles or scarlet fever, as symptoms and the associated exanthematous rash were less severe (33). By the 19th century, Rötheln was formally recognized as a distinct infection and renamed "rubella," derived from Latin meaning “little red.” An Australian ophthalmologist was the first to note cataracts and heart disease in newborn children of mothers infected during pregnancy (10). Subsequent studies confirmed rubella's teratogenic potential. The viral etiology of rubella was established in 1962 (24; 32). Diagnostic serologic tests soon followed, and by 1969 live attenuated vaccines were licensed for use.

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