A heads up about pregnancy and chicken pox
This week I speak from a very saddened heart.
Towards the end of last year my niece was overjoyed to find that she was expecting her second child. Great celebration within our family! Her sister had had her second one 2 months previously and it had made my niece very broody, as newborns seem to do! Then 8 weeks into her pregnancy, her son had to be rushed to hospital with an extremely high fever and it was found that he had chicken pox. Of course my niece was there by his side 24 hours out of 24, cuddling him and comforting him until the doctors could control his fever. Most times, of course, chicken pox is very mild in a child, but not for my great nephew who reacted badly to it. Unfortunately, it also turned out that my niece had never contracted chicken pox as a child. An injection was given to her on the spot, so to speak, in order to try to prevent the virus from reaching the 8 week old baby that was going through the delicate process of growing. Sadly, it seems as if the injection did not help, as 3 weeks later test results on the foetus came back. And the results were horrific. My niece was told that anything and everything that could go wrong with the foetus’s DNA had gone wrong. She would probably miscarry or if she did carry to term, the baby would in all likelyhood be stillborn. She was told that should the baby survive the birth, it would probably die within hours as there was so much damage. And should it actually survive beyond that there was so much DNA damage that he or she would never be able to enjoy life. My poor niece was devastated and left with the heartbreaking decision to abort the baby. She had to go through this horrific experience because she had never had chicken pox and no-one had ever informed her of the dangers of being exposed to the virus should she fall pregnant.
None of us in my family knew about the risk to a baby if one got chicken pox whilst in the first or second trimester. My niece was only 8 weeks pregnant at the time that her little boy came down with chicken pox so theoretically the risk of the baby being affected should have been very, very small. But it happened and with the worst possible consequences for the baby.
How many women are aware that the normally mild childhood disease, chicken pox, can be deadly during the first trimester of pregnancy? I wasn’t. Until recently, I had no idea that this virus could affect the foetus. Most women seem to know about Rubella (German measles) causing a miscarriage or devastating birth defects and developmental problems.
But chicken pox??? Although most people usually get chicken pox in childhood, some do not. And it can also have devastating effects on a baby. For a baby, the risk depends upon the timing, apparently. And the risk of congenital varicella syndrome (the name for when the baby has been affected by the chicken pox virus) occurring is less than 2% (stats for the USA – I could find no stats for South Africa) with 13-20 weeks into the pregnancy as the most vulnerable period.
Unfortunately, just as with German measles, there are a number of really terrible things which could occur if one happens to come down with chicken pox during the first 2 trimesters of pregnancy. Limbs can be improperly formed with deficiencies in their structure, the outer portion of the brain is damaged and psychomotor skills are affected as well as learning and intellectual abilities. The baby’s head will be smaller than the head size of a fully developed normal baby. Eyesight is also affected and eye movement is fast and involuntary.
Before falling pregnant, every woman should first have blood drawn for testing as to whether she has the antibodies to both Rubella and Chicken Pox. If one is found to never have been exposed one can then be vaccinated, which gives some protection against catching either Rubella or Chicken Pox.
However, too many women are not aware of the risks during pregnancy caused by contracting either of these two childhood diseases. More women need to be made aware of these risks and get themselves tested BEFORE falling pregnant. I cannot understand why there is not more being done by the medical professions and clinics to make potential mothers aware that if they have not had either of these two childhood diseases, great damage can be done to the baby during those first formative trimesters. During recent years, when approaching a doctor to discuss future pregnancy, the doctor will usually draw blood to determine whether or not a woman has had both diseases. If your doctor does not suggest these blood tests, then it is up to YOU to ASK for them, BEFORE you fall pregnant. As potential mothers we owe it to our unborn child.
So I write this blog to inform and urge all prospective moms out there – if you are intending to start a family, first check with your parents whether you have ever had chicken pox as a child. If no-one can remember, then get yourself tested for the antibodies BEFORE you fall pregnant as then you can be vaccinated and so avoid this horrific experience which my niece had to go through.