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Warning of potential Japan rubella epidemic issued as cases spike

TOKYO -- The National Institute of Infectious Diseases (NIID) on Aug. 21 issued an emergency warning that a rubella outbreak may have begun, after a sudden spike in patients in the greater Tokyo area.

If expectant mothers are infected with the rubella virus in the first 20 weeks of pregnancy, it can cause hearing impairment, heart ailments and other health problems for the fetus. The Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare and other bodies are calling on people to take precautions against contracting the illness.

According to NIID calculations, there have been 139 confirmed cases of rubella nationwide so far this year -- already more than the totals of both previous years. Among this year's cases, about 40 percent were reported in the two-week period from July 30 to Aug. 12.

Many of the cases were concentrated in and around the nation's capital, with 41 in Chiba Prefecture, 39 in Tokyo, and nine in Saitama Prefecture. There were also patients reported in parts of regional Japan, including seven in Fukuoka Prefecture in southwestern Japan and six in the northernmost prefecture of Hokkaido. Many of the patients are in their 20s to 40s, a generation considered particularly vulnerable to the virus due to changes in the government's immunization policy.

Rubella is primarily transmitted through mucus from sneezes, and symptoms include fever and a light-red full-body rash. Frequent hand-washing and wearing a mask are effective to prevent infection. There is also a vaccine, but it cannot be administered to pregnant women due to risks to the fetus.

The last large rubella outbreak in Japan was in 2012-2013, when some 17,000 people were infected. Forty-five cases of congenital rubella syndrome -- which causes severe birth defects -- were reported, while at least 11 people died of pneumonia and other conditions caused by the virus.

"There are many local governments that subsidize rubella immunity tests for pregnant women and their partners, and I encourage people, especially in the Tokyo region, to get checked as soon as possible," commented National Hospital Organization Yokohama Medical Center head and OB-GYN Fumiki Hirahara.

(Japanese original by Takeshi Noda, Medical Welfare News Department)

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