Congenital rubella

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Definition

Congenital rubella is a condition that occurs in an infant whose mother is infected with the virus that causes German measles. Congenital means the condition is present at birth.

Causes

Congenital rubella occurs when the rubella virus in the mother affects the developing baby in the first 3 months of pregnancy. After the fourth month, if the mother has a rubella infection, it is less likely to harm the developing baby.

The number of babies born with congenital rubella is much smaller since the rubella vaccine was developed.

Pregnant women who are not vaccinated for rubella and who have not had the disease in the past risk infecting themselves and their unborn babies.

Symptoms

Symptoms in the infant may include:

  • Cloudy corneas or white appearance of pupil
  • Deafness
  • Developmental delay
  • Excessive sleepiness
  • Irritability
  • Low birth weight
  • Below average mental functioning (intellectual disability)
  • Seizures
  • Small head size
  • Skin rash at birth

Exams and Tests

The baby's health care provider will run blood and urine tests to check for the virus.

Treatment

There is no specific treatment for congenital rubella. Symptoms are treated as appropriate.

Outlook (Prognosis)

The outcome for a child with congenital rubella depends on how severe the baby's problems are. Heart defects can often be corrected. Damage to the nervous system is permanent.

Possible Complications

Complications may involve many parts of the body, including:

Eyes:

  • Clouding of the lens of the eye (cataracts)
  • Damage to the optic nerve (glaucoma)
  • Inflammation of the retina (retinitis)

Heart:

  • A blood vessel that usually closes shortly after birth remains open (patent ductus arteriosus)
  • Narrowing of the large artery that delivers oxygen-rich blood to the heart (pulmonary artery stenosis)
  • Other heart defects

Central nervous system:

  • Intellectual disability
  • Difficulty with physical movement (motor disability)
  • Small head from poor brain development
  • Brain infection (encephalitis)
  • Infection of the spinal column and tissue around the brain (meningitis)

Other:

  • Deafness
  • Low blood platelet count
  • Enlarged liver and spleen
  • Abnormal muscle tone
  • Bone disease

When to Contact a Medical Professional

Call your provider if:

  • You have concerns about congenital rubella
  • You are unsure if you have had the rubella vaccine
  • You or your children need a rubella vaccine

Prevention

Vaccination prior to pregnancy can prevent congenital rubella. Pregnant women who have not had the vaccine should avoid contact with people who have the rubella virus.

References

Gershon AA. Rubella virus (German measles). In: Mandell GL, Bennett JE, Dolin R, eds. Principles and Practice of Infectious Diseases. 8th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Churchill Livingstone; 2014:chap 154.

Mason WH. Rubella. In: Kliegman, RM, Behrman RE, St. Geme III JW, Schor NF, Stanton BF, eds. Nelson Textbook of Pediatrics. 19th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2011:chap 239.

Reef SE, Rubella (German measles). In Goldman L, Schafer AI, eds. Goldman's Cecil Medicine. 25th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2015:chap 368.

Version Info

  • Last reviewed on 4/21/2015
  • Neil K. Kaneshiro, MD, MHA, Clinical Assistant Professor of Pediatrics, University of Washington School of Medicine, Seattle, WA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.

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