Rubella is a mild and preventable disease caused by a virus. If you catch it you may feel unwell, with swollen glands, a slight temperature, or a sore throat and rash.

But some people have no symptoms at all and so are unaware that they may be infectious and may be passing on the disease.

Rubella is very serious if a pregnant woman catches it in the early stages of her pregnancy because it can profoundly damage the development of her unborn child. It can result in deafblindness or raise the possibility of a termination.

Ensuring that children are routinely vaccinated helps to protect pregnant women and their babies.

Congenital rubella syndrome

A baby born affected by rubella is said to have congenital rubella syndrome (CRS). Many will have hearing loss, cataracts, other eye conditions, and heart problems that require significant hospital treatment and will affect the child throughout their life. A baby’s brain can also be affected.

The risk of congenital rubella syndrome affecting the baby and the extent of the birth impairments it causes depends on how early in the pregnancy the mother is infected. The earlier in the pregnancy the greater the risks.

Vaccination success

Rubella and congenital rubella syndrome are now rare in England.

The introduction of the mumps, measles and rubella (MMR) vaccine has been instrumental in almost stamping-out rubella and congenital rubella syndrome.

Once a person has had rubella or received a rubella vaccine they should develop immunity against further infection.

There have been occasional large outbreaks of rubella. In 1996 an outbreak occurred resulting in around 4,000 cases in England and Wales. Twelve babies were born with CRS.

This is why children should be vaccinated against it.

Long-term health concerns

Though scientific research into the effects of congenital rubella syndrome on adults is still limited, we do know that people with congenital rubella syndrome are more likely to suffer thyroid conditions, some eye conditions and diabetes more frequently than other people and at an earlier age than their peers. 

This list is not exhaustive, and people with CRS report a wide range of health concerns which may or may not be directly linked to congenital rubella syndrome.

It is important the symptoms are taken seriously and that any treatment recognises the impact of CRS and sensory loss.

German measles

German measles is a common term used to describe rubella.

First published: Thursday 22 March 2012
Updated: Friday 13 July 2012