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Pregnant Women's Guide to Diseases in the News

It's scary enough for anyone to hear about health dangers on the evening news. But when you're pregnant and concerned for two -- yourself and your baby -- it can be even more frightening. In some cases you are at greater risk for contracting certain illnesses while you're expecting because your body's immunity is lowered so you won't reject the baby growing inside you. Here's what you need to know about how some recent health scares may affect you.

Smallpox

Latest news: Smallpox was wiped out worldwide 30 years ago, but experts fear the contagious and often fatal disease could return thorough a biological terrorist attack. While the smallpox vaccine is not readily available, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention there is enough of the vaccine to inoculate every person in the U.S. in the event of an emergency.

Potential dangers: The smallpox vaccine itself is dangerous. It often causes fever and sore, swollen arms, but in a few cases it has life-threatening consequences such as serious skin rashes and inflammation of the brain. It can even cause death.

How it affects you: If you're pregnant, your baby is at a greater risk of serious complications from the smallpox vaccine -- things such as premature delivery, skin rashes with scarring, and even death -- and you shouldn't receive it. If you have had the vaccine, use reliable birth control and wait at least 4 weeks before trying to conceive. Additionally, avoid close contact with anyone who has had the vaccine in the last 28 days (for example, do not have sex or even share a bed with anyone who has been recently vaccinated). Also if you're breastfeeding, you should avoid getting it; it is unknown if the vaccine virus or antibodies can be passed on to the baby. The vaccine would only be advisable for pregnant or nursing women as a method of treatment if they were exposed to the smallpox virus.

Latest news: A major, multistate outbreak of the food-borne bacteria listeria (resulting from contaminated cantaloupe) occurred last summer and fall, resulting in 29 deaths and 139 people being sickened.

Potential dangers: Eating food contaminated with listeria can cause a bacterial disease called listeriosis. It feels like the flu, with symptoms such as fever, headache, and nausea. It's rare, but foods that are likely to carry it include fruits and vegetables that come into contact with contaminated soil or surfaces, unpasteurized milk, soft cheeses, undercooked poultry or meat, ready-to-eat meats such as hotdogs and deli cold cuts, refrigerated pates, and seafood. Unlike most other food-borne bacteria, listeriosis multiplies in food that's been contaminated once it's refrigerated.

Most healthy people who eat food contaminated with listeria get a mild illness (fever, abdominal pain, and diarrhea) or even no symptoms at all, but it can cause a more serious infection in some people.

How it affects you: Women who are pregnant (as well as newborns, the elderly, and the sick) are at a greater risk of contracting listeriosis because of their compromised immune systems. In fact, listeriosis is about 20 times more common in pregnant women than the general population. It can cause miscarriage in pregnant women, and if an expectant mother transmits the disease to her baby, it could lead to a stillbirth. Or the baby could develop sepsis (a blood infection) or encephalitis (an inflammation of the brain). Listeriosis can be treated with antibiotics, but you should nonetheless take these precautions during pregnancy to protect yourself and your baby:

*Wash all fruits and vegetables under running water with a soft brush, even if the items are to be peeled. Make sure to sanitize brush, work surface, and your hands before and after washing.

  • Avoid soft cheeses such as feta, Brie, Camembert, and Mexican-style cheese.
  • Cook leftover foods or ready-to-eat foods (such as hotdogs and deli meats) until steaming hot before eating.
  • Cook raw meat, poultry, and seafood thoroughly. Chicken should be cooked until the center reaches 165 degrees.
  • Don't eat uncooked fish including smoked trout, sushi, sashimi, or ceviche.

Latest news: In 1999, an outbreak of West Nile virus (previously known to circulate among mosquitoes and birds in Africa and Europe) was reported in New York City. Since then the virus has spread throughout much of the continental U.S. In 2011, 658 total cases of the virus and 40 deaths were reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In 2002, a woman contracted West Nile while pregnant; her baby was born with the disease and severe medical issues, although it remains unclear whether the virus or other factors caused the complications. Also in 2002, a Michigan woman contracted West Nile virus from a blood transfusion given shortly after giving birth. Lab analysis found evidence of the virus in her breast milk. When her baby was tested, she also was found to be positive for West Nile, although the child is healthy and has no symptoms.

Potential dangers: People living in areas where West Nile has been reported are at risk, although catching West Nile from one mosquito bite is rare. (Mosquitoes get the virus by feeding on infected birds.) Most cases seem to occur in summer through fall, but in warmer climates the virus can circulate longer, according to the CDC. Fortunately, most people -- about 80 percent -- who are infected with West Nile virus don't get sick at all. Another 20 percent have moderate symptoms, which includes fever, headache, and body aches, and occasionally a skin rash on the torso and swollen lymph glands. Only 1 percent of people -- generally those over 50 -- get a severe infection (called West Nile encephalitis or meningitis). Symptoms include headache, high fever, neck stiffness, stupor, coma, tremors, convulsions, muscle weakness, and paralysis. In rare cases it can be fatal. Symptoms usually occur three to 15 days after a bite from an infected mosquito.

How it affects you: Pregnant women are not at greater risk of contracting West Nile virus than the rest of the population. They also aren't at a greater risk of getting a serious reaction to the virus. As for nursing, because of how beneficial breastfeeding is known to be and the fact that the real risk for West Nile virus transmission through nursing is unknown, the case of the Michigan woman doesn't change current breastfeeding recommendations, according to the CDC. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that infants be breastfed for the first year of life or for as long as it's desired by mom and baby.

However, if you live in a risk area for West Nile, take these precautions during the West Nile season to protect yourself from the virus:

  • Apply insect repellent with DEET (you'll see the chemical name, N, N-diethyl-m-toluamide, on the bottle) when you're outdoors. NOTE: Although, according to the CDC, there have been no reported adverse events following the use of DEET insect repellents by pregnant women, you can take some extra precautions: use the spray sparingly and use the product on clothing (not on your skin). Wash your hands and breast area before handling your baby or nursing.
  • Wear pants and long-sleeved clothing outdoors.
  • Stay inside during peak mosquito hours -- dawn, dusk, and early evening.

Latest news: According to the Centers for Disease and Prevention, about 10 to 20 cases of plague (mostly of the bubonic variety) are reported each year in the U.S. Most of those cases occur in rural areas of the southwest, although recent cases have been reported in New York City (where the infected parties had traveled from New Mexico) and Los Angeles, where it is thought that a woman may have contracted the disease after visiting a large city park.

Potential dangers: Bubonic plague is a bacterial disease in rodents. It's transmitted to humans through the bites of infected fleas. Fortunately the bubonic plague doesn't spread from person to person, and it's also very rare. Symptoms of bubonic plague are swollen and painful lymph nodes, fever, chills, and extreme exhaustion. While 50 to 90 percent of people infected with the disease will die without proper medical attention, it can be successfully treated with antibiotics.

How it affects you: Pregnant women are at no greater danger of contracting the disease. Of course, avoid contact with live and dead rodents.

Copyright © 2012 Meredith Corporation.

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