Ever wonder why pregnant women are told not to change the kitty litter box? Toxoplasmosis is a parasitic infection that anyone can contract from exposure to cat feces, or undercooked meat. For the majority of people, they won’t even know when they are infected, but in pregnant women, a new infection can cause problems including loss of pregnancy, stillbirth, or a variety of developmental problems for the baby.
Another important infection to know about and prevent is the rubella virus – or the “3 day German measles”. This is part of what the MMR (mumps measles rubella) vaccine prevents, and although the infection itself in most people is very mild with low grade fevers and rash, it was added to that vaccine to help prevent pregnant women from becoming infected in the first 20 weeks of pregnancy. The effects on the baby can include miscarriage, cataracts, deafness, or heart defects. Pregnant women are usually tested to make sure they have adequate antibodies against this virus from the vaccine they would have received as children. Occasionally, they don’t have these antibodies, and because the vaccine has live virus, we do not give it during pregnancy, and usually strongly recommend a booster after the baby is delivered to protect women in future pregnancies.
Cytomegalovirus, or CMV, is another infection that can be dangerous in pregnant women. Infection can cause pneumonia or “mono” in the general population, but a new infection in a pregnant women can also cause severe defects in the baby, with hearing or vision problems as well as developmental delays. There is no vaccine for this virus and the good news is that the majority of women have already been previously exposed to this virus, making a new infection during pregnancy rare. The key here is good hand washing and avoiding sick people.
Herpes virus also makes the list (which causes genital herpes and cold sores), but this infection is highly preventable for babies, as the majority of these infections come from a mother with genital herpes delivering vaginally during an outbreak. A women who becomes infected with genital herpes for the first time can pass it to the baby through the placenta, but this type of infection is pretty rare luckily. Pregnant women with a history of genital herpes are usually put on antiviral treatment to prevent outbreaks and infection during delivery, and the effects on babies who do become infected from mom are similar to many of the infections listed above.
There are other infections to avoid as well that can be dangerous, including HIV, coxsackie virus (causes hand, foot and mouth infection), chlamydia, gonorrhea, listeria (don’t eat unpasteurized cheese!), hepatitis, syphilis… Most of these can be avoided using condoms and trying to avoid sick people as much as possible. I didn’t mean to be all doom and gloom – the congenital infections I talked about above are pretty rare, just wanted to get some information out there for people about these and answer some questions we have gotten.