Rubella in pregnancy

German measles is a mild illness for adults but can be very serious for your unborn baby. Here's what you need to know

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The closest encounter you’ve probably had to rubella is queuing for a vaccination way back in your schooldays. Also known as German measles (because our clever Bavarian cousins were the first to identify the virus as being separate to the classic measles one), the infection is very rare in the UK nowadays.

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If you were to catch it, it’s a fairly mild illness that clears up within a week. However, if you are pregnant, it’s not so straightforward for your unborn baby.

“The virus can cause miscarriage and stillbirth as well as birth defects such as hearing loss, brain damage, heart problems and cataracts,” explains Boots UK pharmacist, Angela Chalmers.

The most dangerous time to catch rubella is in the early stages of pregnancy. “The risk of your baby being affected is up to 90 per cent if you catch it in the first trimester,” says Angela. “The risk is considered to be low only after week 16.”

So what are the symptoms of rubella?

Mild fever, joint pains, sore throat and a distinct pinky-red rash that can appear after your glands become swollen are the signs to look out for.

The rash will start on your face and neck and may then spread all over your body. It can be really itchy and uncomfortable and lasts for up to a week.

That said, many people don’t get any symptoms of rubella so they won’t know that they’ve had it. But if you’ve any reason to think you’ve been at risk, contact your GP or midwife straight away.

“They can diagnose rubella and check if the baby has been affected,” says Angela Chalmers.  “They can then offer counselling to you if your baby has been affected.”

But I think I had the immunisation as a child…

Because the risks to your baby are so high, you will probably be given a blood test in one of your early midwife appointments to check if you’re immune to rubella. You may well have had a childhood vaccination against it, but it is likely this will have worn off.

“Antibodies from your childhood vaccinations may not be at a high enough protective level,” explains Angela Chalmers.

So like RileysMummy you may be surprised to discover that even though you had the vaccine at school, you’re not protected. “At my 25 week appointment they told me that I’ll be given the MMR vaccine again after I’ve given birth. Basically advised me to stay away from anyone that had come out in a rash.”

What if I don’t have immunity but I’m already pregnant?

Unfortunately, you cannot be vaccinated while expecting, only after you have given birth.

All vaccines contain a tiny amount of the virus they protect against – they work by encouraging your body to fight against the virus and produce protective antibodies.

In the case of the rubella, the small amount of live virus in the vaccine could cross the placenta and infect your baby.

Lizandyumi on our forums was in exactly this position. In fact she only found out she wasn’t immune from reading her pregnancy notes.

“I’m 17 weeks and I’ve just been reading my notes and apparently I’m not immune to rubella according to the results of my blood tests. No one said anything about this in any of my appointments,” she says.

Luckily for Lizandyumi, as she is in her second trimester, she is well out of the most dangerous period now.

How do I prevent myself from catching rubella?

It’s understandable that you will be worried if you are pregnant and unprotected. The sensible thing to do is avoid anyone who had rubella or has been into contact with it.

The virus is spread by coughs and sneezes, so be extra vigilant with hygiene and make sure those around you are too.

I’ve had the vaccine recently – can I get pregnant?

Milly32 on our MFM forum sadly miscarried recently and now she is thinking about getting pregnant again.

“I was told during my first pregnancy that I wasn’t immune to rubella.  I’ve been told two different things; the doctor said I must wait three months before trying again after the injection and the nurse (same surgery) said only wait a month. I’m confused!”

Our expert and NHS Choices both suggest one month is long enough.

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