Protecting Newborns from Infectious Diseases

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June 22, 2020


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This post is available in: Spanish

From the delivery room to the nursery, parents of newborns are typically vigilant about cleanliness and safety. That caution is wise, especially during the current COVID-19 pandemic, says neonatologist Jorge Perez, M.D., medical director of South Miami Hospital’s Neonatal Intensive Care Unit.

In addition to the threat of COVID-19, flu and other viruses, strep infections and common household germs can disrupt the otherwise healthy balance of a baby’s nursery, he says. Fortunately, preventive medicine begins with prenatal care and continues after your baby’s homecoming.

Worried about germs? Dr. Perez warns of the most common, yet potentially serious, illnesses that newborns contract and offers parents these tips to keep babies safe: 

Influenza: A flu vaccination during pregnancy allows the unborn child to benefit from mom’s flu shot. Direct flu immunization is not recommended for newborns and babies under 6 months of age. But during those early months, the newborn remains protected from a flu shot received by mom during her pregnancy. That’s important, because infants and young children are especially vulnerable to the flu and related complications, such as pneumonia. “The flu in babies and young children is especially serious, as their immune systems aren’t yet strong enough to fight off this virus,” Dr. Perez said. “We recommend that moms get their flu shot during pregnancy and other caregivers should also get a flu vaccine to prevent exposing the child to the virus.”

Group B streptococci: According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 25 percent of women carry group B strep bacteria, which is not usually harmful or contagious, except to newborns. Group B strep can be passed on to babies during delivery and can cause meningitis and bloodstream infections, which can be fatal. Therefore, when expectant mothers are 35 to 37 weeks pregnant, most are given a group B strep test. If not, Dr. Perez recommends pregnant women ask their obstetrician to order the test. If a woman is identified as a carrier of the bacteria, she will receive antibiotics during labor to prevent the spread of the bacteria to the baby during delivery. Even if a woman tests negative for group B strep in one pregnancy, she should be tested again in subsequent pregnancies, Dr. Perez says.

Cytomegalovirus: Known as CMV, this virus can be passed from the mother to the baby during pregnancy through the mother’s blood, which passes through the placenta to the baby. The CDC reports that most babies born with congenital CMV are healthy, without any symptoms or health problems. But, some babies are born prematurely and will exhibit symptoms, such as rash, jaundice, a small head (microcephaly), low birth weight, an enlarged liver or spleen, a damaged eye retina (retinitis), pneumonia or develop seizures. These babies may also develop long-term health problems, including vision or hearing loss or developmental and motor delays. The virus, which is transmitted through saliva, urine and blood, can infect individuals without detection. Women who have frequent contact with young children are at greater risk of contracting CMV and passing it along to their unborn babies. For protection, the CDC recommends that pregnant mothers:

  1. Use soap and water to wash hands, particularly after changing a toddler’s diaper, wiping a child’s nose or touching objects handled by children.
  1. Wash or disinfect toys and surfaces – especially those handled by children.
  1. Avoid sharing utensils, food and drinks.

Listeriosis: Newborns, pregnant women, older adults and those with compromised immune systems are more likely to contract listeriosis, a potentially severe infection caused by eating food tainted by the listeria bacteria. It’s a rare illness, but the CDC reports that pregnant women are 10 times more likely than others to become infected and adds that the infection can present a serious threat to unborn babies and newborns. As a preventive step, pregnant women should avoid the following:

  • Unpasteurized milk or soft cheeses made from unpasteurized milk.
  • Undercooked or raw seafood or fish, including sushi.
  • Unheated deli meat or hot dogs.
  • Refrigerated meat spreads and pates.

Dr. Perez suggests that thorough and frequent handwashing, limiting visitors – especially those who are showing signs of illness – and using common sense can go a long way in preventing a newborn from getting sick. He also encourages breast-feeding when possible, since breast milk has been proven to bolster babies’ immune systems to help ward off bacteria, pathogens and viruses.

“COVID-19 has brought to light the importance of taking preventive measures to prevent spreading infections to others,” Dr. Perez said. “With newborns, who have developing immune systems, it’s especially important to take common sense precautions to reduce the risk of infection.”

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