Imagine it: You carry your baby for nine months and bring home a healthy infant. Your family is jubilant and showers her with kisses. Suddenly, she stops eating and falls ill. The doctors tell you that she has contracted herpes meningitis from a relative and just three weeks after you bring her home, you have to bury her.
This is reality for Nicole and Shane Sifrit of Iowa. They gave birth to their healthy daughter, Mariana Reese, on July 1 and announced her death to herpes meningitis (HSV-1) on July 18 via Facebook, stating that their daughter “gained her angel wings … in her daddy’s arms and with her mommy right beside her.”
After losing their daughter, the couple is now warning other parents of the dangers of allowing human contact with newborns. But what is the real likelihood that your baby could contract this potentially deadly virus and what should parents know about it?
Dr. Indira Bhagat, a neonatologist at Children’s Hospital of Michigan, has the inside information on the virus and weighs in on the risks and what parents should look for.
What is herpes meningitis?
Herpes meningitis is an infection of the thin layers of tissues (meninges) that cover your brain that is caused by the herpes virus, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine.
“There are two types of the herpes virus, type one and type two,” Bhagat explains. “Type one is oral and causes cold sores. Type two is genital herpes.”
Because there are two types of the herpes virus, there are two types of ways for an infant to contract it: from mom when being pushed through the birth canal and from coming in contact with the virus through a cold sore.
“It is more common for babies to come in contact in the birth canal,” the doctor explains. “(But) if someone is having type one and has an active lesion, and they touch it then touch the baby, it can be transmitted that way.”
If a mother does have genital herpes and is aware that she has it, she should let her doctor know so the doctor can perform a cesarean section to keep her baby from coming in contact with the disease.
“It is not common for babies to contract (herpes), but it common for the mothers to have it. Babies are more likely to get it if mom has it (but) 70 percent of the time the mother doesn’t know that they have it,” Bhagat says.
What to watch out for
If there’s a chance that mom has herpes and gave birth naturally or that baby has come in contact with a cold sore, it is important to watch out for the signs of the disease because if left untreated, it can be fatal.
“The baby can be fussy, they will have a fever, they will not sleep or eat well and if you delay the treatment, the baby can start having seizures,” Bhagat says.
If seizures have started, this means that the infection has moved from the meninges and into the brain (a condition known as encephalitis). At this point, the condition could cause neurological damage and long-term problems if the patient survives, Johns Hopkins Medicine notes.
Luckily, if you catch these symptoms early enough, the disease can be treated.
“If mom doesn’t know (she has herpes) and the baby is delivered, we will swab the baby’s eye, nose, mouth and rectum,” Bhagat explains. “If the baby comes in with a fever, we will do a spinal tap for meningitis.”
If any of the tests come back positive, the patient is treated with medication.
Preventing the illness
Even if you don’t have herpes or cold sores, you should be cautious of who kisses and touches your baby, since human contact is the only way to contract the virus.
“It doesn’t go through breathing. Only direct contact,” Bhagat says.
She encourages that parents and anyone that touches the baby to wash their hands first. She also recommends avoiding contact with the baby if you have a cold sore.
“Definitely if you have a kid younger than one month of age, and an open lesion, you should not touch the baby,” she says.
If you have to touch the baby when you have a cold sore, wash your hands, wear gloves and avoid touching the cold sore during interaction with the child.
And above all, she adds, “Do not kiss if you have a cold sore.”