German physicians first described rubella; hence, it is commonly known as German measles.
In 1941 an ophthalmologist reported a link between maternal rubella and congenital cataracts. A pandemic of rubella in 1964 led to recognition of an expanded congenital rubella syndrome (CRS), which includes hepatitis, splenomegaly, encephalitis, mental retardation as well as the more familiar association with deafness, cataracts and heart disease.
Rubella has a very similar pattern to measles, epidemiologically. It has respiratory spread that is greater in crowded societies, and periodically may disappear from a geographic area only to reappear in epidemic form.
The seriousness of CRS can be seen when reviewing the latest major American epidemic in 1964-65. There were 30,000 pregnancies affected out of 12.5 million rubella cases, including 2,000 cases of encephalitis. Of these pregnancies, 5000 women had surgical abortions, over 6000 women had spontaneous abortions and among the 20,000 infants who survived pregnancy, 11,600 were deaf, 3,580 were blind and 1,800 with mental retardation.
Not every country can offer free rubella immunisation and regional epidemics do occur periodically. In 2003 there were large epidemics in several Pacific Island nations.