Rubella Endangers Pregnant Women, Their Developing Babies

December 3, 2018

The bottom line: Rubella, also called “German measles,” is a contagious disease caused by a virus. The illness can be especially serious for pregnant women and their unborn babies, causing miscarriages and birth defects. The tell-tale, pink rash is the most common symptom. Vaccination is the best way to prevent rubella among infants, children, teens, and adults.

Rubella can be deceptively mild, causing no symptoms in up to half the people who get the viral illness. But if pregnant women get the disease, it can kill, causing miscarriages and stillbirths, or can leave the babies with lifelong disabilities. 

While rubella has technically been eliminated in the United States, it is a problem around the world. Rubella, also called “German measles,” remains one of several vaccine-preventable diseases that makes its way to the United States when unvaccinated people get infected during international travel. The Texas Medical Association’s (TMA’s) Texas Medicine magazine reports physicians urge parents to make sure their babies are protected, as well as women who are planning to get pregnant. 

“Certainly, we want to make sure children get their rubella vaccination as part of their routine vaccinations,” said Donald K. Murphey, MD, a pediatric infectious disease specialist in Austin. “And even before birth, we want their mothers to make sure they’re protected against rubella to safeguard their unborn babies. It’s a simple blood test your doctor performs as part of routine prenatal care,” added the TMA Council on Science and Public Health member.

In the 1960s, rubella was common and widespread in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The last major U.S. epidemic in 1964-65 infected about 12.5 million people, caused 11,000 pregnant women to lose their babies, led to the deaths of 2,100 newborns, and resulted in 20,000 babies with birth defects. 

Some older Americans may recall mass vaccination efforts to prevent the disease’s spread after the rubella vaccine was introduced in 1969. The vaccine has been so effective, fewer than 10 people in the United States now get the illness each year, CDC says. And since 2012, all U.S. cases were probably contracted outside the country.

Prior to the vaccine becoming available, rubella was a routine illness in most children, said Dr. Murphey. “There were epidemics of rubella every few years,” he said. Usually school-aged children had fever, rash, and enlarged lymph nodes but no other severe complications. 

“However, rubella is a big threat to pregnant women, during their first trimester,” said Dr. Murphey. Rubella virus spreads from the mother to the developing baby to cause congenital rubella syndrome, he said.  

 Congenital rubella syndrome can cause deafness, blindness, congenital heart disease, and sometimes intellectual challenges. People who have congenital rubella syndrome are either moderately or severely affected by it, he said.  

The MMR vaccine protects against rubella and two other diseases: measles and mumps. Children need two doses of MMR vaccine, at 12-15 months of age, and at 4-6 years of age. Teens and adults also should be up to date on their MMR vaccination. The MMR vaccine is more than 90-percent effective at preventing rubella.

This release is part of a monthly TMA series highlighting contagious diseases that childhood and adult vaccinations can prevent. Diseases covered thus far are:  

TMA designed the series to inform patients of the facts about these diseases and to help them understand the benefits of vaccinations to prevent illness. Visit the TMA website to see efforts to raise immunization awareness and how funding is used to increase vaccination rates.

TMA is the largest state medical society in the nation, representing more than 51,000 physician and medical student members. It is located in Austin and has 110 component county medical societies around the state. TMA’s key objective since 1853 is to improve the health of all Texans. 

Be Wise — ImmunizeSM is a joint initiative led by TMA physicians and medical students, and the TMA Alliance. It is funded in 2018 by the TMA Foundation thanks to H-E-B, TMF Health Quality Institute, Pfizer Inc., and gifts from physicians and their families. 

Be Wise — Immunize is a service mark of the Texas Medical Association. 


TMA Contacts:  Brent Annear (512) 370-1381; cell: (512) 656-7320; email: brent.annear[at]texmed[dot]org

Marcus Cooper (512) 370-1382; cell: (512) 650-5336; email: marcus.cooper[at]texmed[dot]org 

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Last Updated On

February 13, 2020