February is International Prenatal Infection Prevention Month

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While Valentine’s Day and President’s Day sales are more likely to grab headlines and attention, February is also observed by healthcare organizations worldwide as International Prenatal Infection Prevention month. Prenatal infection may not grab headlines, but it certainly should. Prenatal infection is much more prevalent and serious than people expect and can cause serious and life-long health problems for both mother and child – problems that are largely preventable. The month is set aside to promote a common effort of raising awareness about and reducing the incidents of mother to child transmission of infections. 


What We Don’t Know Can Hurt Us

Mothers think of their unborn child as being safely insulated from most harms, and the seriousness of transmission of infection is rarely a consideration. This is partly due to the fact that many of the infections are often harmless in adults. Group B Streptococcus (GBS), for example can cause serious health problems for both mother and child but is highly treatable and in the United States, typically thought of as harmless for adults in most instances. Because it is so treatable, mothers rarely give it a second thought. GBS, however, is the leading cause of meningitis and sepsis in a newborn’s first week of life. One of the biggest problems in preventing prenatal infection is the mother’s feeling of false security which leads to not taking precautions to prevent their occurrence.


The Consequences Can Be Serious

The belief that nearly everything is treatable or preventable is one of the burdens of modern medicine. Medicine has so advanced that it is easy for patients to assume that whatever comes their way is “fixable”, and therefore is not take infection or preventative measures seriously. This, unfortunately, can lead to serious and even dire consequences.

GBS is a natural and normal bacterium that colonizes 20-30% of all adults (men and women) without symptoms or side-effects. One in four women in the US carry the bacteria that cause Group B strep infection but only a few babies exposed become infected. Around 7,600 babies are exposed to GBS each year. GBS can cause babies that do contract it to be stillborn, or become sick or even die after birth. It is the leading cause of meningitis and sepsis in a newborn’s first week of life.

Another problem is thinking an infection is so rare that it could not happen to them. Listeriosis is one such example. Listeriosis is rare but pregnant women are 10 times more likely than other people to get it. If they do get it, they often dismiss the flu-like symptoms of muscle pain and fatigue. Infection during pregnancy, however, can lead to miscarriage, stillbirth and life-threatening infection in the newborn.


The Health Effects Can Be Long-Term

If parents underestimate the frequency and seriousness of prenatal infection, they also do not realize the long-term impact these infections can have on their babies. Prenatal infections contribute to a host of long-term health effects of which parents should be aware. These health effects include such life-changing consequences such as circulatory and respiratory problems, hearing and vision loss, and learning disabilities among many others.


Growing Research Sheds Light on the Neurodevelopmental Impact of Prenatal Infections

A growing body of research suggests a possible link between prenatal infection and links to autism, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia. It is thought that the infections, such as the flu, trigger an immune defense which impacts these conditions. Findings regarding this were published in the March 29, 2016, issue of Molecular Psychiatry and encourages further research in finding out more about the mechanisms and preventing possible side-effects.


Working Toward Greater Understanding

No parent wants to dwell on the many health threats a preborn baby can face, but understanding those threats and taking action to prevent them can greatly reduce the chances of being affected by them. So what threats of which should parents become more aware? All of them.

Prenatal infections are largely preventable and knowing about them and how they are transmitted is the first step in knowing how to prevent them. Even before conception, mothers can be the baby’s best health advocate in preventing infection. Simple lifestyle changes and habits can greatly contribute to their baby’s health, such having protected intercourse, eating properly cooked and stored foods, frequent hand washing, not smoking and being properly immunized. Mothers can also participate in preventing infection by avoiding environmental threats such as being bitten by mosquitoes, handling cat litter, and contact with rodents such as pet hamsters. Together, these simple changes can significantly reduce the risks to their unborn child and help ensure a happy, healthy future.

We at Healthy Kansas City magazine are pleased to see that the important work of research into and the prevention of prenatal infection continues as our healthcare professionals strive for greater awareness.

For more information, please see: Molecular Psychiatry advance online publication 28 March 2017; doi: 10.1038/mp.2017.31

Centers for Disease Control: https://www.cdc.gov/features/prenatalinfections/index.html

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