A: Rh disease is a newborn health condition that's caused by an incompatibility between your blood type and your baby's. Here's the gist: Most people have Rh-positive blood, meaning that they produce an Rh protein on the surface of their red blood cells. But about 15 percent of Caucasian women and about seven percent of African-American women don't produce this Rh protein on their red blood cells -- they're Rh-negative. Rh disease can occur if you are Rh-negative, but your baby is Rh-positive, which can happen if the baby's dad has Rh-positive genes and the baby inherits them.
If this is the case, your unborn baby's Rh-positive red blood cells can enter your bloodstream through the placenta. This can trigger your body to view these strange cells as intruders and make antibodies to fight them, which is known as sensitization. This can lead to complications for your baby like anemia, jaundice, or in rare cases even brain damage.
Although this sounds serious, Rh disease is easily preventable. Your doctor will likely test your blood early in pregnancy to see whether you're Rh-negative or Rh-positive.
• If you're Rh-positive, then you don't need to worry about Rh disease.
• If you're Rh-negative, your doctor will also test your partner's blood and possibly your baby's. If it turns out that your baby is Rh-positive, your doctor will give you a shot of Rhogam (a blood protein that prevents sensitization) around 28 weeks into your pregnancy and again right before delivery. This should keep your baby healthy and significantly reduce her risk of developing Rh disease.
Because it can take your body a long time to build up enough antibodies to potentially harm your baby, Rh disease is usually not a big concern in first-time pregnancies. But if you are pregnant again, your doctor will likely track your and your baby's health with blood tests throughout the pregnancy, to make sure dangerous levels of antibodies are not building up.
On the off chance that your child does develop Rh disease, you should know that most babies diagnosed with it do just fine. For some babies, Rh disease is so mild that it doesn't require treatment, and about 95 percent of babies with severe cases recover.