The name rubella is derived from a Latin term meaning “little red.” Rubella is generally a benign communicable exanthematous disease. It is caused by rubella virus, which is a member of the Rubivirus genus of the family Togaviridae. Nearly one half of individuals infected with this virus are asymptomatic. Clinical manifestations and severity of illness vary with age. For instance, infection in younger children is characterized by mild constitutional symptoms, rash, and suboccipital adenopathy; conversely, in older children, adolescents, and adults, rubella may be complicated by arthralgia, arthritis, and thrombocytopenic purpura. Rare cases of rubella encephalitis have also been described in children.
The major complication of rubella is its teratogenic effects when pregnant women contract the disease, especially in the early weeks of gestation. The virus can be transmitted to the fetus through the placenta and is capable of causing serious congenital defects, abortions, and stillbirths. Fortunately, because of the successful immunization program initiated in the United States in 1969, rubella infection and congenital rubella syndrome rarely are seen today.