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Can infection with VZV during pregnancy harm the baby?

Diana Meeks
Diana Meeks on behalf of Sigma Nursing
Family Practitioner

Many mothers-to-be are concerned about varicella-zoster virus (VZV) infection contracted during pregnancy, and rightly so because some infections can be transmitted across the mother's bloodstream to the fetus or can be acquired by the baby during the birth process. VZV infection during pregnancy poses some risk to the unborn child, depending upon the stage of pregnancy. During the first 30 weeks, maternal chickenpox may, in some cases, lead to congenital malformations. Such cases are rare, and experts differ in their opinions on how great the risk is. Most experts agree that shingles in a pregnant woman, a rare event, is even less likely to cause harm to the unborn child.

If a pregnant woman gets chickenpox between 21 to 5 days before giving birth, her newborn can have chickenpox at birth or develop it within a few days. But the time lapse between the start of the mother's illness and the birth of the baby generally allows the mother's immune system to react and produce antibodies to fight the virus. These antibodies can be transmitted to the unborn child and thus help fight the infection. Still, a small percent of the babies exposed to chickenpox in the 21 to 5 days before birth develop shingles in the first 5 years of life because the newborn's immune system is not yet fully functional and capable of keeping the virus latent.

What if the mother contracts chickenpox at the time of birth? In that case, the mother's immune system has not had a chance to mobilize its forces. And although some of the mother's antibodies will be transmitted to the newborn through the placenta, the newborn will have little ability to fight off the attack because its immune system is immature. If these babies develop chickenpox as a result, it can be fatal. They are given zoster immune globulin, a preparation made from the antibody-rich blood of adults who have recently recovered from chickenpox or shingles, to lessen the severity of the chickenpox.

This answer is based on source information from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.