Maternal Infections

Quick Answer

Maternal infection is any type of disease passed from a mother to her baby before or during childbirth. These infections may attack a baby’s growing brain, putting them at risk of mental and physical impairments. Doctors have a duty to keep mothers and babies safe from maternal infections. If they do not, they may have committed medical malpractice.

Birth Injuries From Maternal Infections

The experience of carrying a baby and then giving birth should be joyful. Unfortunately, when an undetected maternal infection is present, this joyful experience can quickly turn tragic.

Maternal infections that spread to the baby are also called neonatal or fetal infections. These infectious diseases can spread through the birth canal during delivery or while the child is still in the womb. While these infections may only cause minor if any symptoms in expectant mothers, they can be devastating to unborn children.

Without treatment, neonatal infections can cause cerebral palsy, developmental delays, and physical abnormalities. These problems can affect children for the rest of their lives. In severe cases, infections can cause stillbirth, meaning the baby does not survive.

Therefore, discovering a maternal infection early on and treating it is very important. If a doctor does not test for and treat infections, they may be held legally responsible for a child’s birth injury.

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Common Maternal Infections During Pregnancy

Each type of infection can affect pregnant women and developing fetuses in different ways. Learn about some of the most common infections below.

Chickenpox

This is formally known as varicella and is a common childhood disease. However, this can be a devastating disease for the unborn.

According to the Mayo Clinic, fetuses infected with chickenpox shortly after the first trimester (before week 20) can develop congenital varicella syndrome.

This condition can cause:

  • Brain damage and cerebral palsy
  • Microcephaly (abnormally small head)
  • Hydrocephalus (fluid buildup in the brain)
  • Scarring of the skin
  • Vision problems

If a pregnant woman had chickenpox as a child or had the vaccine, she and her developing baby are safe from the infection. However, if a woman was never vaccinated or didn’t catch the disease during childhood, her baby is at an increased risk of congenital varicella syndrome.

Chorioamnionitis

In cases of chorioamnionitis, bacteria can infect the amniotic fluid and sac that babies develop in. According to the Cleveland Clinic, this infection typically starts in the mother’s urinary tract and then moves to the fetus.

Chorioamnionitis is a very dangerous condition. If left untreated, the infection can spread to the baby’s brain and spine (meningitis) or blood (sepsis). Both meningitis and sepsis can permanently disable or kill the baby.

Since this condition is commonly associated with preterm delivery, obstetricians may encourage women to deliver their child early. This can help reduce the risk of the serious complications described above.

Group B Streptococcus (GBS)

This is a commonly occurring bacteria carried by around 25% of all adult women in the United States in their vaginal, gastrointestinal, or rectal areas.

An untreated GBS bacterial infection can be transferred to an unborn baby during pregnancy and cause harm.

GBS can lead to:

  • Convulsions
  • Meningitis
  • Pneumonia
  • Sepsis

Checking for GBS is vitally important because this infection doesn’t trigger symptoms, so a woman might have no idea she is infected until it’s too late to protect her child.

Hepatitis B Virus

Hepatitis B is an extremely dangerous virus for babies during the birthing process.

In 90% of cases, babies born with Hepatitis B will suffer from it for the rest of their lives. This long-term infection can lead to cancer of the liver or liver disease.

Health care providers should test pregnant women early on in their pregnancy. If a pregnant woman has Hepatitis B, her health care team can administer shots to the baby after birth to prevent them from developing the virus.

Listeriosis

Caused by the bacteria listeria that thrives in raw food, listeriosis is an infection that causes symptoms similar to the flu in adults. While it is a reasonably harmless infection in most cases, it can result in significant health risks in pregnant women.

Listeriosis can impact fetal membranes, which can cause birth injuries such as brain damage and even death. Thankfully, doctors can easily treat listeriosis with standard antibiotics once detected.

Rubella

Rubella is a contagious viral infection. This virus, which once was very common in childhood, is also known as the German Measles.

Although rubella has been mostly eradicated since vaccinations were created in the 1960s, pregnant women should be tested for the infection at some point during their pregnancy.

This is necessary because a rubella infection can cause congenital rubella syndrome (CRS) in babies, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

CRS can cause:

  • Cerebral palsy
  • Hearing loss
  • Heart defects
  • Hormonal issues
  • Glaucoma and cataracts

Therefore, if a mother hasn’t been vaccinated for rubella, they should be at the beginning of their pregnancy.

Syphilis

This well-known sexually transmitted disease (STD) is transferable to babies during the birthing process in mothers who have active vaginal sores. It can also be transferred in utero via the placenta.

In infants, syphilis can cause:

  • Brain damage
  • Loss of hearing and vision
  • Tooth formation problems
  • Death

Women should be checked for syphilis at the beginning of their pregnancy because the disease can remain dormant for years, meaning a mother might not realize she has it.

Toxoplasmosis

This is a parasitic infection from Toxoplasma gondii, a single-cell organism found most often in certain soil types, uncooked meat, or cat feces.

Nearly everyone has some Toxoplasma gondii in their bodies, but that doesn’t mean they have been infected.

If you become infected for the first time just before or during your pregnancy, you can pass the infection to your baby (congenital toxoplasmosis), even if you don’t have signs and symptoms yourself.

– Mayo Clinic

Babies with toxoplasmosis may suffer from brain damage or hearing and vision loss.

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Urinary Tract Infection (UTI)

This is an infection of the bladder or urethra. If left untreated, pregnant women with a UTI can go into preterm labor or have their water break before labor starts. Both of these conditions have been linked to serious health problems in newborns, such as developmental disabilities. Thankfully, UTIs can be easily treated once detected.

Symptoms of Infection in a Newborn

Immediately following a baby’s birth, symptoms of a maternal infection may present themselves. Others may be less noticeable, so doctors and parents should stay alert for any possible symptoms.

  • Respiratory Symptoms

    Breathlessness
    Coughing and wheezing
    Hypotension or hypertension
    Low oxygen levels or heart rate

  • Changes in Appearance

    Problems gaining weight
    Jaundice
    Waxy or pale skin

  • Behavioral Changes

    Arched back when crying
    Difficulty with swallowing, eating, or sucking
    Excessive drooling
    Fussiness
    Lethargy

  • General Symptoms

    Anemia
    Constipation
    Fever
    Hearing loss in high-frequency sounds
    Light sensitivity
    Seizures
    Vomiting or nausea

Preventing Common Maternal Infections

To prevent maternal infections, pregnant women should:

  • Avoid touching rodent or cat feces
  • Frequently wash their hands with soap and water
  • Get tested for STDs
  • Talk to their doctors about the risk factors for infections

Doctors also have a duty to prevent common maternal infections from harming developing babies. Oftentimes, doctors can catch infections early on by conducting tests at various stages of pregnancy.

These tests include:

  • Group B Strep Test: Doctors use a q-tip to take a swab from a pregnant woman’s rectum and vagina, according to the CDC. This test is typically given around the 36th or 37th week of pregnancy.
  • Rubella Test: Doctors can test for rubella by taking a sample of blood. According to the American Association for Clinical Chemistry (ACCC), this test is done at the start of pregnancy or if a woman/fetus has possible symptoms of an infection.
  • Syphilis Test: Doctors can test for syphilis by taking a blood sample. 42 states have passed laws requiring women who are pregnant to get tested for syphilis on their first doctor’s visit. Many states also require syphilis tests later in pregnancy and at the time of birth.

These tests should be a part of a pregnant woman’s prenatal care plan. Sadly, doctors sometimes won’t order the needed tests, putting unborn children in danger.

Is Failing to Discover or Test for Infections Medical Malpractice?

Yes — a doctor’s failure to either prevent or treat infections may be the basis for a medical malpractice lawsuit.

It is the doctor’s job as a caretaker of both the mother and baby to find and treat any health issues before, during, or after delivery.

In cases where a baby is born with an infection or multiple infections, doctors need to recognize any health problems immediately and enact a follow-up care plan (including needed treatments) to prevent additional damage when possible.

If doctors do not properly diagnose a maternal infection and/or fail to treat the birth injury it causes, they may have committed medical malpractice.

Compensation for Preventable Birth Injuries From Maternal Infections

No child deserves to begin life at a disadvantage, especially one that could easily have been prevented by medical professionals. Financial compensation may be available if your child faces a lifetime of disability due to maternal infection.

If your child was born with a maternal infection that could have been prevented with a proper diagnosis and treatment, get a free case review now. Our Patient Advocates are standing by to help you.

Birth Injury Support Team

The Birth Injury Justice Center was founded in 2003 by a team of legal professionals to educate and empower victims and families affected by birth injuries. Our team is devoted to providing you with the best resources and legal information for all types of birth injuries.

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