Rubella is a contagious disease that is caused by a virus. It is also called German measles or three-day measles. But don't confuse rubella with measles, which is sometimes called rubeola. The two diseases have similar features, including a red rash, but they are caused by different viruses.
Rubella, whose name means "little red," was thought to be a type of measles until 1814, when German scientists described it as a completely different disease. From 1963 to 1965, a rubella epidemic swept throughout the world. In the United States alone, about 11,000 babies died and 20,000 babies developed birth defects from rubella. Rubella vaccine was developed in 1968. After the vaccine was licensed in 1969, the number of people in the United States who got rubella went down quickly. Rubella vaccine is still used throughout the world today.
Rubella virus can be found in nose and throat secretions, such as saliva, sputum, or nasal mucus, of infected people. You can spread the virus to others through sneezing or coughing. In young children, rubella is usually mild, with few noticeable symptoms. They may have a fever and a sore throat. Adults are more likely to have a headache, pink eye, and general discomfort 1 to 5 days before the rash appears. Adults also tend to have more complications, including sore, swollen joints and, less commonly, arthritis, especially in women. A brain infection called encephalitis is a rare but serious complication that can affect adults with rubella. However, the most serious consequence from rubella infection is the harm it can cause a pregnant woman's baby.
Pregnant women who get infected with rubella virus also expose their babies. This can cause serious birth defects such as heart problems, hearing and vision loss, intellectual disability, and liver or spleen damage. Serious birth defects are more common if a woman is infected early in her pregnancy, especially in the first 12 weeks. Getting rubella infection during pregnancy can also cause a miscarriage or premature delivery.
Pregnant women should not get rubella vaccine. They should wait to get vaccinated after they have given birth. If you are planning to get pregnant, make sure you are protected from rubella beforehand. A blood test—an antibody titer—done by your doctor can tell you if you are already immune to rubella. If you are not immune, you should get vaccinated. Wait at least four weeks before getting pregnant. Children should also be vaccinated on time to prevent rubella from spreading to pregnant women.
Rubella vaccine is included in the MMR vaccine, which is a combination vaccine that protects you against measles, mumps, and rubella. MMR vaccine is safe and effective and has been widely used in the United States for over 20 years.
In the United States, 2 doses are recommended for children:
- the first dose at 12 through 15 months old and
- the second dose, before entering school, at 4 through 6 years old.
In 2004, a second combination vaccine, MMRV (measles, mumps, rubella, and varicella) was licensed. Your child's doctor can help you choose between getting the MMR vaccine and the varicella (chickenpox) vaccine separately or the combination MMRV vaccine.
Vaccinating your child on time is the best way to protect them and others, including pregnant women and their babies, from rubella infection.