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Decline In MMR Vaccination Puts Pregnant Women And Babies At Risk

Rubella rash

Measles and mumps have shown up in Texas, and both are preventable if children get the MMR vaccine. But some doctors are concerned that people may be not be aware of the third illness included in the MMR vaccine acronym. The R stands for rubella, also known as German measles.

Dr. Jason Bowling is an expert in infectious diseases at UT Health San Antonio. He said it’s easy to forget about rubella because it usually causes a much more mild infection.

He said a lot of people with rubella have no symptoms at all, but that is what makes rubella dangerous, particularly to pregnant women.

Pregnant women who get rubella may never know they’re sick, but it almost certainly means serious complications for their pregnancies. It can cause Congenital Rubella Syndrome.

“It can include early delivery, fetal death, and then there can also be congenital malformations,” Bowling said, “and the more common ones cause heart defects, cataracts and hearing impairment.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control, an estimated 12.5 million people contracted rubella during the last epidemic in the United States in 1964 and 1965. Eleven thousand pregnant women lost their babies, 2,100 newborns died and 20,000 babies were born with defects associated with congenital rubella syndrome.

Credit CDC/Dr. Erskine Palmer / http://bit.ly/2VQV5qX
The rubella virus

A small but growing group of parents in the U.S. have rejected the MMR vaccine for their children in recent decades.

The movement gathered steam in the '90s when British doctor Andrew Wakefield linked vaccines to autism in a since-discredited study.

That means some unvaccinated “Wakefield babies” are now old enough to have their own children, and Bowling said if measles and mumps are out there now, rubella probably is too, but it’s too mild to concern scientists.

Bowling said he feared rubella won’t receive the required attention until babies are born with birth defects associated with the virus.

“We don’t want to wait until we’re seeing malformations or increased fetal losses and then attributing it to rubella infections,” Bowling said. “That’s the wrong way to figure out that this is a problem. We need to work on getting improved vaccine uptake now.”

Bowling stressed that women can’t wait to get the vaccine until they’re pregnant. It is a live virus vaccine, meaning it contains a weakened live form of the virus to teach your immune system to fight it, and it is not recommended during pregnancy.

He said unvaccinated women considering having a baby should get the MMR vaccine before they get pregnant.

Bonnie Petrie can be reached at Bonnie@TPR.org and on Twitter at @kbonniepetrie.