The Facts and Dangers of Maternal Infection

One of the common factors leading to birth injuries or defects is maternal infection. Maternal infection is an infection acquired by the mother who then transmits the infection to the fetus. This transmission can occur via the placenta before delivery or via the birth canal during labor and delivery when the baby is exposed to maternal blood.

Common Maternal Infections

Maternal infections can occur at any stage of pregnancy, and can have serious implications for the fetus or soon-to-be newborn. Some of the most common maternal infections include:

  • Toxoplasmosis: Toxoplasmosis is an infection caused by exposure to Toxoplasma gondii, a single-celled parasite. Toxoplasmosis can be contracted by exposure to soil or feces, raw meat, or undercooked meat. The effects of toxoplasmosis on a fetus can be devastating, and may include physical or mental problems.
  • Chorioamnionitis: Chorioamnionitis is an infection of the placental tissues and amniotic fluid. Chorioamnionitis only occurs in two to four percent of full-term births, and is more likely in premature births. The causes of chorioamnionitis include E. coli and Group B streptococcus, and can lead to blood infection.
  • Bacterial Infections: Bacterial infections can include Group B streptococcal disease, Listeria, Salmonella, Syphilis, and Gonorrhea. These bacterial infections can result in premature birth, severe illness, miscarriage, deformity, or fetal death.
  • Viral Respiratory Infections: Common viral respiratory infections include Cytomegalovirus (CMV), Parvovirus, Varicella (chickenpox), and Rubella. Viral respiratory infections are particularly dangerous during early pregnancy and can lead to miscarriage, anemia, or birth defects. It is noted that CMV is a common cause of infant deafness; Parvovirus is a cause of congestive heart failure; and Rubella can lead to diabetes later in life.
  • Sexually Transmitted Infections: Sexually transmitted infections are one of the leading causes of illness and death among infants. Research shows that around 8,000 American women become infected with HIV while pregnant every year. As many as a quarter of those women will pass the virus to their infants. Another common sexually transmitted virus is genital herpes – caused by the herpes simplex virus, which is also the cause of cold sores. Genital herpes and warts can cause problems with labor and delivery, and can transmit the virus to the infant.

Importance of Treatment of Maternal Infections

It is incredibly important to recognize the symptoms of maternal infection and get prompt, proper medical attention. Most infections, if diagnosed quickly, can be treated with relatively low risk of further complication. If the infection itself cannot be treated, such as with HIV or CMV, treatment may be focused on eliminating symptoms and lowering the risk of transmission. Women who are at risk for infection, or who are already diagnosed with an infection prior to, or during pregnancy, should be diligent in communicating with healthcare providers. It is equally as important for healthcare providers to offer prompt, appropriate treatment and care for women and their most delicate patients – the infants.