What is congenital rubella syndrome as seen on Call the Midwife?

Episode six features a rare illness that affects newborn children **CONTAINS SPOILERS**

WARNING: Embargoed for publication until 00:00:01 on 04/02/2020 - Programme Name: Call The Midwife - TX: n/a - Episode: n/a (No. 6) - Picture Shows: L-R Nurse Lucille Anderson  (LEONIE ELLIOTT), Maureen (JULIET OLDFIELD) - (C) Neal Street Productions - Photographer: Laura Radford

As ever, series nine of Call the Midwife has delved into a vast range of rare and difficult medical conditions, with illnesses such as obstetric fistula and haemochromatosis having been the focus of previous episodes.

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In episode six, the spolight is shone on congenital rubella syndrome, with a truly heartbreaking storyline seeing Maureen’s newborn baby boy Warren pass away shortly after his birth as a result of the rare condition.

What is congenital rubella syndrome?

In simple terms, congenital rubella syndrome is a severe illness which can only occur in infants, which was first discovered in 1941.

As we see in this week’s episode there are a number of symptoms, which normally include at least one of eye abnormalities (including blindness), hearing impairment and congenital heart disease.

Normally, an infant with the illness will display a combination fo these symptoms, with other indicators including spleen, liver, or bone marrow problems, brain damage a low birth weight and skin lesions.

What’s the connection with German measles?

German measles is another name for the viral infection rubella, and a child will only be born with congenital rubella syndrome if their mother contracts this virus during her pregnancy.

An infant whose mother contracts German measles during the first trimester of pregnancy is most at risk – but the condition can also develop in foetuses during the second trimester.

Rubella causes a red rash on the body, while a fever and swollen lymph nodes are also common symptoms.

The symptoms can be subtle and the virus is generally rather mild – which is why Maureen didn’t realise she had had German measles during her pregnancy.

Juliet Oldfield plays Val's cousin Maureen in Call the Midwife

Is congenital rubella syndrome treatable?

Sadly there is no cure for the syndrome, although specific symptoms can be treated.

The best way to put a stop to congenital rubella syndrome is to prevent it from occurring in the first place, by vaccinating yourself for rubella – however woman who are already pregnant should under no circumstances get the vaccination, as it is a live virus.

Fortunately, most children in the UK now receive the MMR (mumps, measles rubella) vaccination, and as such congenital rubella syndrome is extremely rare – between 2002 and 2011, there were only eight cases across the country.

Is it always fatal?

No. Although in this week’s episode Maureen’s child tragically passed away, the degree to which it is fatal depends on the severity of the symptoms.

In some cases infants will be born with deformities and brain damage but will still be able to live beyond infancy – although they will live with the condition for life.

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More information is available via the NHS.

Call the Midwife continues on BBC One at 8pm on Sundays