Rubella was historically viewed as a variant of measles or scarlet fever. Not until the mid-1900s was a separate viral agent for rubella isolated. After an epidemic of rubella in Australia in the early 1940s, the ophthalmologist Norman Gregg noticed the occurrence of congenital cataracts among infants whose mothers had reported rubella infection during early pregnancy, and congenital rubella syndrome (CRS) was first described.
Rubella virus is a member of the Togaviridae family and the only member of the genus Rubivirus. This single-stranded RNA enveloped virus measures 50–70 nm in diameter. Its core protein is surrounded by a single-layer lipoprotein envelope with spike-like projections containing two glycoproteins, E1 and E2. There is only one antigenic type of rubella virus, and humans are its only known reservoir.
Pathogenesis and Pathology
Although the pathogenesis of postnatal (acquired) rubella has been well documented, data on pathology are limited because of the mildness of the disease. Rubella virus is spread from person to person via respiratory droplets. Primary implantation and replication in the nasopharynx are followed by spread to the lymph nodes. Subsequent viremia occurs, which in pregnant women often results in infection of the placenta. Placental virus replication may lead to infection of fetal organs. The pathology of CRS in the infected fetus is well defined, with almost all organs found to be infected; however, the pathogenesis of CRS is only poorly delineated. In tissue, infections with rubella virus have diverse effects, ranging from no obvious impact to cell destruction. The hallmark of fetal infection is chronicity, with persistence throughout fetal development in utero and for up to 1 year after birth.
Individuals with acquired rubella may shed virus from 7 days before rash onset to ∼5–7 days thereafter. Both clinical and subclinical infections are considered contagious. Infants with CRS may shed large quantities of virus from bodily secretions, particularly from the throat and in the urine, up to 1 year of age. Outbreaks of rubella, including some in nosocomial settings, have originated with index cases of CRS. Thus only individuals immune to rubella should have contact with infants who have CRS or who are congenitally infected with rubella virus but are not showing signs of CRS.
The largest recent rubella epidemic in the United States took place in 1964–1965, when an estimated 12.5 million cases occurred, resulting in ∼20,000 cases of CRS. Since the introduction of the routine rubella vaccination program in the United States in 1969, the number of rubella cases reported each year has dropped by >99%; the rate of vaccination coverage with rubella-containing vaccine has been >90% among children 19–35 months old since 1995 and >95% for kindergarten and first-grade entrants since 1980. In 1989 a goal for the elimination of rubella and CRS in the United States was set, and in 2004 a panel of experts agreed unanimously ...