Contracting a sexually transmitted infection (STI) during or prior to pregnancy may cause damage to the developing fetus, which may result in physical and mental abnormalities or even the loss of the baby. Some infections are transmitted from the mother to the child through the placenta during pregnancy, affecting the fetus inside of the womb. Others can spread during the birthing process or postnatal period (through breastfeeding or direct contact). According to Centers for Disease Control, “The harmful effects of STDs in babies may include stillbirth (a baby that is born dead), low birth weight, conjunctivitis (eye infection), pneumonia, neonatal sepsis (infection in the baby’s blood stream), neurologic damage, blindness, deafness, acute hepatitis, meningitis, chronic liver disease, and cirrhosis.” The following list provides information on specific STDs and the potential threats they pose to pregnant mothers. It is crucial that women protect themselves and their children by learning how to avoid these infections and getting sufficient prenatal care.
Although very easily curable, chlamydia is the most prevalent STD in the United States, possibly because it is often asymptomatic in both women and men. Women who have chlamydia during the early stages of pregnancy run an increased risk of miscarriage or premature delivery. Chlamydia may be transmitted from the genitals of the mother to the newborn child as it passes through the vaginal opening during childbirth, particularly to the baby’s respiratory system and eyes. This severe eye infection (trachoma) may cause blindness, and requires immediate antibiotic treatment. In addition to physical damage, the child can also catch pneumonia, which is particularly dangerous for infants. It is crucial that the mother is also treated with antibiotics to rid herself of the infection and prevent a ping-pong cycle of re-infection between her and the child.
Bacterial vaginosis occurs when there is an imbalance of “normal” bacteria in a woman’s vagina, typically due to hazardous events like douching and engaging in unprotected sexual activity with multiple partners. Pregnant women who are infected with bacterial vaginosis are at risk of giving birth to premature and underweight babies (less than 5.5 pounds). This condition can easily be treated with a series of antibiotics, however it may return and require multiple treatments.
Gonorrhea is another prevalent bacterial infection that can grow inside of the reproductive tract, mouth, anus, eyes and throat. A pregnant woman with gonorrhea also has an increased chance of having a miscarriage or premature delivery. Like chlamydia, gonorrhea is commonly transferred to the child during the birthing process after the baby makes physical contact with the mother’s infected region. A child who acquires gonorrhea may develop blindness, pink eye (conjunctivitis), and joint infections. Gonorrhea is often asymptomatic for both males and females, which means women who are pregnant or planning on becoming pregnant must take extra precautions with sexual exposure and get tested.
Mothers with hepatitis B have an increased risk of a premature delivery and can transmit the infection to their child. Fortunately, the development of new vaccines (for both adults and young children) has been successful in helping to prevent transmission. Because hepatitis B is a viral strain, it cannot be reversed once a person is diagnosed as positive. Therefore, it is crucial to take the necessary steps to ensure the health of yourself and newborn child.
According to the CDC, “It is important that women avoid contracting herpes during pregnancy because a newly acquired infection during late pregnancy poses a greater risk of transmission to the baby.” If an infant does become infected during the birthing process, he or she may acquire a deadly infection. Although the transmission of genital and anal herpes during delivery is rare, the baby can become infected if the woman has an active outbreak anywhere along the birth canal (the virus is most concentrated in broken blisters). In order to prevent the herpes from spreading to the child, the mother can take anti-viral pills and the doctor can perform a cesarean section.
According to Avert.org, an online charity group dedicated to preventing the transmission of HIV/AIDS, “Nine out of ten children infected with HIV were infected through their mother either during pregnancy, labor and delivery or breastfeeding. Without treatment, around 15-30 percent of babies born to HIV positive women will become infected with HIV during pregnancy and delivery and a further 5-20 percent will become infected through breastfeeding.” In wealthy nations, the risk that the mother will pass HIV to her newborn child is extremely rare due to the development of effective antiretroviral drugs and highly trained medical personnel.
HPV (Genital Warts)
Human papillomavirus (HPV) is the most common sexually transmitted disease in the world, although transmission from mother to infant during childbirth is highly unlikely. If a woman is infected with HPV, the medicines that she receives may even make the warts on the vagina grow larger. If the warts are left untreated, they may become significant enough to block the woman’s vaginal opening and prevent the fetus from passing through the birthing canal. If this happens, the alternative option is to deliver the baby through a cesarean section (although this issue is highly debated; some medical practitioners believe performing a C-section has no benefit to the health of the child). Treatment of the mother's warts is typically delayed until after the child is born.
Syphilis a bacterial disease that can be transmitted from mother to child during and after pregnancy. The CDC reports, “Depending on how long a pregnant woman has been infected, she may have a high risk of having a stillbirth (a baby born dead) or of giving birth to a baby who dies shortly after birth.” Children who survive the birth must be treated immediately to avoid seizures, physical abnormalities in the brain, eyes, heart, ears, skin and bones and possibly death. Upon diagnosis, both the mother and child are treated with antibiotics in order to prevent further transmission.
Mothers with trichomoniasis have a higher chance of giving birth preterm. The child can contract the infection after birth and run a fever. Medication is given to both the mother and child to cure the infection.
In order to guarantee protection from sexually transmitted diseases during pregnancy, both viral and bacterial, it is important to get tested regularly, abstain from sexual activity with multiple partners, and always use protection. If you are currently pregnant and sexually active, be sure that you are in a strictly monogamous relationship with a partner who has also been tested and is free of infection.
Last Updated 20 February 2013.