It’s International Prenatal Infection Prevention Month
February 9, 2021
Pregnancy should be a time of joy and anticipation, but for many, it’s also a time of worry. They worry over the baby’s health, mom’s health, and a lot more. And sadly, for over 2 million families worldwide, prenatal infection – a fungal, parasitic, viral, or bacterial infection passed from mother to baby during pregnancy or delivery – results in infant death. Many more are born with disabilities, such as hearing loss or birth defects, because of these infections.
The good news is that in many cases, prenatal infections can be prevented and International Prenatal Infection Prevention Month places a spotlight on this issue.
Infections During Pregnancy Are Common
Although exact numbers aren’t available, it’s estimated that over 60% of women in the United States have at least one infection at some point during their pregnancy, most commonly during the first trimester (first three months). Infections like the common cold are very unlikely to cause serious harm, but others can affect the baby’s development and/or cause premature birth.
Aside from the common illnesses, such as urinary tract infections (UTIs) and the flu, women can also contract (or already have) viral infections like Zika and HIV, or bacterial infections like group B streptococcus. The ones most dangerous during pregnancy include:
- Bacterial vaginosis – can cause preterm labor
- Group B strep – can be passed to the infant who may become seriously ill, may develop sepsis
- Hepatitis – can be passed to the infant
- Sexually transmitted infections – can cause multiple problems from preterm delivery to infant infections
- Toxoplasmosis – can cause disabilities in the infant, such as blindness and intellectual disabilities
- UTIs – may progress to kidney infection, which could cause early labor and low birth weight
- Zika virus – may cause pregnancy loss, birth defects
Not All Prenatal Infections Are Preventable
Women can’t prevent all infections, but with good prenatal care, they can reduce the risk.
Pregnant women should be followed by a healthcare professional (physician, nurse practitioner, or midwife) for prenatal care to reduce the chances of pregnancy-related complications, including infections. Not only can some infections be prevented, if an infection does occur, early diagnosis and treatment reduces the risk of harm to mother and child.
Although each woman is different, the general guidelines regarding prenatal visits for healthy women are:
- Once a month from 4 weeks to the 28th
- Every two weeks for weeks 28 through 36
- Once a week until birth
The most common and generally accepted infection prevention step that anyone can do is proper and frequent hand washing. This reduces the risk of infection spread by touch. Pregnant women and anyone coming in close contact should wash their hands:
- After using the bathroom
- After changing diapers and caring for or playing with children
- Before and after touching and preparing food, and eating
- When returning home or to the office after being outside
- After touching animals or handling pets
- After being with someone who is ill
If possible, pregnant women should avoid:
- Touching or changing dirty cat litter
- Cleaning up after wild or pet rodents
- Eating unpasteurized milk and milk products
- Visiting locations with known infection spread, such as the Zika virus
- Visiting people who have known infections
Ideally, women should be up-to-date on all their vaccinations before they get pregnant. But, since a pregnancy can be unexpected, this isn’t always possible. Pregnant women should speak with their doctor about their vaccination history and what vaccines they should get during their pregnancy.
According to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), pregnant women should receive two vaccines during their pregnancy – the flu shot and one called Tdap, which protects them and their unborn child from pertussis, or whooping cough, as well as diphtheria and tetanus. The flu vaccine should not be the live one, given by nasal spray. Individual women may need other vaccines, depending on what their doctor suggests.
There are some vaccines that pregnant women shouldn’t get. They include vaccines for:
- Human papillomavirus (HPV)
- Measles, mumps, rubella (MMR)
- Varicella (chicken pox)
If a pregnant woman is traveling to a part of the world that requires vaccines against diseases like yellow fever, typhoid fever, and Japanese encephalitis, they should consult with their doctor about the risks versus benefits of the vaccines.
Get Tested for Prenatal Infections
Pregnant women should speak with their doctor about testing for sexually transmitted infections, such as HIV or hepatitis B, and for group B strep (GBS). If there is an infection, plans can be made for treatment, the baby may be observed more closely, and delivery plans may change. For example, a woman who is positive for GBS may be given antibiotics while she is in labor, to prevent passing the infection to the baby.