Pregnancy Infections

How to prevent and treat rare -- but serious -- infections.

Getting sick when you're pregnant can be a very scary situation. Not only do you feel ill, but you're also concerned that your sickness will hurt your baby. Fortunately, the average cold or stomach upset is nothing to worry about. But some illnesses need to be taken seriously, such as the parasitic infection toxoplasmosis and the viral infection hepatitis B. If these infections aren't treated properly and promptly, they can harm you and your baby. The good news is that taking the proper steps to reduce the chance that you'll contract these illnesses is easy.

Hepatitis B

Hepatitis B is a viral infection that causes liver inflammation. The virus is spread by contact with blood or other bodily fluids from an infected person. You are at increased risk if you live with or are sex partners with an infected person, have multiple sex partners, or are a health-care worker. This virus can produce a number of distressing symptoms, including fatigue, nausea, and jaundice. Fortunately, most people recover completely.

However, about 5 to 10 percent of women who have had hepatitis B continue to carry the virus in their system and can pass it on to their babies. These lifelong carriers of the virus are at increased risk of developing severe liver diseases such as cirrhosis (scarring of the liver) and liver cancer.

About 24,000 babies are born each year to women who either carry hepatitis B due to past infection or get it for the first time during pregnancy. Without treatment, 10 to 20 percent of these babies contract the virus, usually during labor and delivery. The risk is highest when a woman gets hepatitis B during the third trimester of pregnancy or has particularly high levels of the disease in her body. Most infected babies -- greater than 90 percent -- become chronic carriers who face a high risk of serious liver disease as adults.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that all pregnant women be screened for hepatitis B. If you carry the virus, there's a 95 percent chance that infection can be prevented in your baby if he receives immune globulin therapy and the hepatitis B vaccine within 12 hours of birth, and two more doses of the vaccine in the first six months of life. The CDC also recommends that all babies be vaccinated against hepatitis B. Your best defense against this virus is prevention: Avoid exposure to the virus, and get the vaccine, which is considered safe during pregnancy -- especially if you have risk factors.

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