The fresh rubella outbreak spreading quickly nationwide poses the greatest threat to fetuses, according to the National Institute of Infectious Diseases.

If a woman catches rubella in the early stages of pregnancy, her child can suffer hearing, heart and eye defects. Five such cases were reported during last year’s epidemic and one has already been reported this year, the institute said.

On Jan. 29, the health ministry issued a nationwide alert about the potential for another epidemic and recommended that prefectures and other local governments start promoting vaccinations. The case count in January has already surpassed the yearly average.

Outbreaks of rubella, also known as German measles or three-day measles, usually peak in spring and early summer, causing rashes, fevers and swollen glands, mostly in children.

The 254 cases in January are more than 13 times higher than a year ago and higher than the annual average of 224 logged from 2008 to 2011, the institute said.

Last year’s rubella epidemic hit 2,353 people in total, but just 19 in January, the institute said.

Rubella is perpetuated by the rubella virus, which can be transmitted by coughing and sneezing. Some people develop an immunity from past infections, but most use vaccinations to prevent a recurrence, the institute said.

The virus often infects children, but adults have proven more susceptible in recent years — especially men in their 20s to 40s, it said.

The current outbreak is concentrated in Tokyo and surrounding prefectures, so far.

The health ministry is urging vaccinations, especially for women trying to get pregnant and their husbands.

New whooping cough

New York AP

Researchers have discovered the first U.S. cases of whooping cough caused by a germ that may be resistant to the vaccine.

Health officials are looking into whether cases like the dozen found in Philadelphia might be one reason the U.S. just had its worst year for whooping cough in six decades. The new bug was previously reported in Japan, France and Finland.

The new germ was first identified in France, where more extensive testing is routinely done for whooping cough. The strain now accounts for 14 percent of cases in France, said Nicole Guiso of the Pasteur Institute.