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The Danger to Families of Prenatal Infection

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Few things on Earth are more exciting than the birth of a child. But lost somewhere in all the baby showers and ice chips is a discussion about the chances for prenatal infection. It’s scary for new parents — but it’s better to be prepared for this possibility and have nothing happen at all than the other way around.

Plus, new parents-to-be are better off speaking with a doctor than scouring the internet and reading things posted by who knows who.

"It depends on the specific infection," said Susan Rutherford, M.D., of Washington State, who is board-certified in obstetrics and gynecology, and also in maternal-fetal medicine. "Some cause birth defects or brain damage (rubella, Zika, syphilis and others) and some cause illness that can be life-threatening in utero (parvovirus, also known as fifth disease, that spreads through children, and listeria, for example)."

Rutherford said some cause infection that is life-threatening later.

The examples she gave include "HIV or hepatitis, where transmission risk is greatest around the time of delivery. Some that cause illness in the mother have no known risk to the unborn baby, but may be life-threatening to the pregnant mother — influenza especially."

Rutherford added that some infections are avoidable by being previous vaccination or by avoiding behaviors that lead to infection.

"Avoiding exposure to sexually transmitted infections and IV drug use reduce or eliminate the risks of syphilis, HIV, hepatitis and Zika if the partner has it," Rutherford explained. "Avoiding unpasteurized foods reduces the risk of listeria, and for other infections it is strongly, compellingly advised that women be vaccinated, such as for influenza."

This is only a brief illustration, it should be noted.

"Each pregnant woman should follow the recommendations of her doctor," said Rutherford, who is also president and medical director of 3W Medical for Women, a clinic in Seattle that provides mostly free office OB-GYN evaluations for women.

If you're wondering whether prenatal infection is more common in younger or older women — don't.

"Age is not very relevant here. It's the behaviors that put people at risk" that are relevant, she said.

Risk is not related to ethnicity, by the way, but Dr. Rutherford said it's related to the locations and conditions in which women live, and the behaviors and immunization rates of their communities.

"For example, the eating of unpasteurized cheese among Hispanic women puts them at risk for listeria infection."

"Some areas of the country have higher rates of syphilis. Outbreaks of various infections can occur anywhere."

What about geography? Does that matter?

"Geography does play a role through communicability. Recently this was illustrated when news media reported on Zika virus transmission in some of the southern states for two reasons: one was that the mosquito that carries it can live in some of those warm locations, and secondly was the number of people who travel between those areas and South America, especially Brazil. Some areas of the country have higher rates of syphilis. Outbreaks of various infections can occur anywhere. Health care professionals should be up to date on the particular risks in their locale."

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This is a timely discussion: February is International Prenatal Infection Prevention Month. LifeZette asked what tips Dr. Rutherford would share with parents-to-be and their families and loved ones, and she communicated these:

1.) Make sure you're receiving prenatal care. "Your health care provider can tell you what is harmful and what is not. If you intend to become pregnant, consider a preconception health care visit to review your risks, including risks to unborn babies if you already have an infection, such as HIV or hepatitis B or C. There are other infections I have not mentioned here that may be issues for pregnant women."

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2.) Get the flu shot!

3.) Avoid communicable disease exposures by avoiding sexually transmitted infection exposure and IV drug use. When an outbreak of parvovirus among school children is identified, avoid exposure for you and for your children so they do not bring it home to you; don't eat unpasteurized foods; and avoid other contacts that may lead to harmful infections.

4.) Many things can be treated to reduce effects on mother or baby, so don't over-worry — but see an expert in the field, if needed, should a serious infection occur.

Chris Woodward is a reporter for American Family News and OneNewsNow.com. Based in Mississippi, he is also a contributor to OneMillionDads.com and EngageMagazine.net.