All About Rh Disease

What is Rh disease and how can it affect an unborn baby?

What Is Rh Disease?

Most people have Rh-positive blood, meaning that they produce the "Rh factor," an inherited protein found on the surface of their red blood cells. But about 15 percent of the white population and 7 percent of the African-American population lack the Rh factor. These people are Rh-negative.

The health of an Rh-negative person is not affected in any way. However, an Rh-negative woman is at risk of having a baby with Rh disease if she conceives a baby with an Rh-positive father and the baby inherits the father's Rh-positive blood type.

Rh disease is a condition caused by an incompatibility between the blood of a mother and that of her fetus. If the mother is Rh-negative and her baby is Rh-positive, during pregnancy (and especially during labor and delivery) some of the fetus's Rh-positive red blood cells may get into the mother's bloodstream. Since these red blood cells are foreign to the mother's system, her body will try to fight them off by producing antibodies against them -- a process called "sensitization."

In a first pregnancy, there's very little danger to an Rh-positive baby because the child is usually born before the mother produces substantial Rh antibodies. However, since the woman will continue to produce antibodies throughout her life, during her next pregnancy, maternal Rh antibodies can cross the placenta and reach the fetus.

This is a disease that destroys an unborn baby's blood cells, potentially resulting in newborns being born with jaundice (yellowing of the skin and eyes) and anemia. In some cases the results could be brain damage, heart failure, and even death. But today, doctors are able to detect and treat Rh disease in the fetus, so about 95 percent of babies with severe Rh disease survive.

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