Pregnant women who know they have genital herpes can become very concerned for their child, and rightly so. Genital herpes can be transmitted to their child during birth. The good thing is that neonatal herpes is rare and there are precautionary measures that can be taken.
An estimated 20-25% of pregnant women have genital herpes, while less than 0.1% of babies contract an infection. Transmission rates are lowest for women who get herpes before pregnancy and for women who have no signs or symptoms of an outbreak at delivery. The chances of transmission are highest when a woman gets genital herpes late in pregnancy.
In the rare case that a newborn does contract genital herpes, the outcome can be distressing. Approximately half of all newborns treated with antiviral medications have no permanent damage, but others can suffer from serious neurological damage, mental retardation or even death.
If you know you have genital herpes, and you become pregnant, speaking to your doctor immediately about it will be beneficial. You can discuss with your doctor ways to minimize the risk of passing the infection to your baby. If you think you may have genital herpes, and become pregnant, speak to your doctor about possible testing.
Mothers who have had genital herpes for some time before getting pregnant have an increased chance of having a healthy baby. People who have contracted genital herpes build antibodies. Those antibodies from the mother will be passed to the baby during pregnancy. This gives the baby a greater chance of not contracting the virus.
Premature babies, unfortunately, have a slightly increased risk regardless of the amount of time the mother has had the infection. The transfer of the antibodies from the mother to the baby begins at 28 weeks of pregnancy. This is why women who contract the virus during the third trimester have a greater chance of passing it to the baby-they may not have enough time to make antibodies, let alone pass them to the baby.
About 5%-8% of babies who contract neonatal herpes are infected after birth, usually when an adult who has an active infection of oral herpes kisses the baby.
Between 10% and 14% of women with genital herpes have an outbreak at delivery. There is a greater risk for women who get the infection during pregnancy, and lower for women who have had the infection for more than six years.
If a woman is having an outbreak at this time, the safest thing for the baby is a cesarean section so that the baby doesn’t come in contact with the virus at all.