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Five pathogens harmful to unborn children

Hannah Fuchs / gro
January 31, 2016

In addition to the Zika virus, there are other pathogens that can cause damage to unborn children inside the womb. Here are five types of infections that are less dangerous to adults than their offspring.



This viral infection is generally known as a childhood disease. Symptoms include a fine rash, enlarged lymph nodes, light fever and a feeling of tiredness. After around 14 days, the illness is over and the recovered person has built up lifelong immunity to the disease.

The virus is transmitted by airborne droplets. A pregnant woman with rubella can pass the virus on to the unborn child, possibly causing heart defects, blindness and/or deafness. The gestational age makes a difference: During the first month of pregnancy, there is a 50 to 60 percent chance of congenital malformations in the unborn child. After that, the risk drops progressively. If a pregnant woman is infected after the fourth month, there is a 20 percent chance of the fetus contracting the illness. Approximately 3.5 percent of the babies then suffer congenital defects.

Doctors recommend: Anyone who has not had rubella should be vaccinated. Women who are planning to have children should be vaccinated no later than three months before pregnancy.


Another childhood disease is measles, which is also caused by a virus. The illness begins with flu-like symptoms; a few days later, a rash breaks out.


Women who intend to have children and have not had the disease should be vaccinated no later than three months before pregnancy. The infection can bring about complications for expectant mothers. About 25 percent of babies from mothers who have contracted measles during pregnancy are born prematurely, and the risk of stillbirth rises.

If the illness is detected at an early stage, immunoglobulins, the part of blood plasma that contains antibodies, can be administered. This can stop the spread of the disease, or at least weaken its effects.


Toxoplasmosis is caused by a parasite called Toxoplasma gondii. It is known as a zoonotic disease, which means it is passed from animals to humans. A toxoplasma infection can by caused by the consumption of raw, smoked or undercooked meat, or by contact with cat feces containing the contaminant - for example, when cleaning a cat's litter box or gardening.

Many patients are not aware of the infection. Occasionally, symptoms such as fever, headaches or swollen lymph nodes may develop. Anyone who has ever been infected is generally immune afterwards.

However, if a woman is infected for the first time during pregnancy, the stage of pregnancy usually determines how great the risk is for the fetus. Ten percent of infected babies suffer the effects of toxoplasmosis at birth, such as brain or liver inflammation and hydrocephalus – water on the brain. However, the risk of infecting the fetus can be halved by administering medication.

The herpes simplex virus

There are two types of herpes simplex virus: the herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1) and the herpes simplex virus type 2 (HSV-2). The virus type 1 causes oral cold sores. Many people are familiar with the unpleasant, painful blisters on or around the mouth - especially since they are hard to overlook. Type 2 leads to genital herpes, which is at least equally unpleasant. Anyone who has ever been infected with the herpes virus is a lifelong carrier of the virus. When the person's immune system is weakened, the herpes sores appear.

Image: Colourbox

A woman who has been infected with type 2 herpes before her pregnancy has nothing to fear, as the fetus has developed enough antibodies against the virus. However, it is different for an expectant mother who is infected shortly before childbirth. Then, there is a risk that the baby's skin and eyes will be infected by the type 2 virus during birth. In the worst case, it can lead to fatal neonatal sepsis. In order to avoid this, the expectant mother may choose to have a caesarian section.


The bacterium Listeria monocytogenes causes listeriosis. It exists all over the world but is rare. The bacteria are transmitted through consumption of unpasteurized milk products or raw meat and fish. Many people are unaware of an infection as the symptoms are the same as those of a mild flu. At worst, listeriosis can lead to blood poisoning or meningitis.

Pregnant women should be careful, as listeriosis can lead to miscarriage or premature birth. Newborns can suffer from early-onset listeriosis, which sets in immediately after birth. It can cause diseases of internal organs, skin diseases, respiratory problems and spasms.

Late-onset listeriosis can lead to meningitis or sepsisone to two weeks after the birth.

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