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What infection in pregnancy does to babies

Laide could not believe her eyes when the nurses at the hospital she delivered moments earlier gave her the baby. The baby boy had a…

Laide could not believe her eyes when the nurses at the hospital she delivered moments earlier gave her the baby. The baby boy had a small head and bulging eyes. His fingers and toes were not well formed; he had three fingers on each hand instead of five, and had two toes on one foot, and three on the other.

The 40-year -old woman who has two normal children gathered that one of the nurses even screamed immediately the baby was born while others looked on in amazement. 

Scientists say maternal infections during pregnancy is a risk factor for abnormal fetal development. 

This was revealed in a study recently published in the journal, Molecular Psychiatry, by researchers from the University of Cyprus, University of Cambridge, University of California, San Diego, and Stanford University.

The scientists who used rats and mice to help map the complex biological cascade caused by the mother’s immune response revealed that large population based studies have previously shown that a variety of maternal infections during pregnancy were associated with small increases in the risk for psychiatric disorders, including autism spectrum disorders and schizophrenia. 

“Most strikingly, this has been seen during the recent emergence of Zika virus, which led to babies being born with an abnormally small head and brain (known as ‘microcephaly’). In the case of Zika, the virus has its impact by directly attacking fetal brain tissue,” the scientists said.

Dr Michael Lombardo, lead author of the work from the University of Cyprus and the University of Cambridge said, the biological cascade triggered by this effect is not well understood, particularly on how it may be similar to known biology behind conditions like autism.

 “This was the motivation behind why we did the study,” he said.

The scientists found that maternal immune activation alters the activity of multiple genes and pathways in the fetus’s brain. Importantly, many of these genes are known to be important in the development of autism and to key brain developmental processes that occur before birth. 

“The more we understand about how brain development is disrupted by these effects, the higher the chance of finding amenable targets for potential therapeutic intervention or for informing how to prevent such risk from occurring in the first place,” said Dr Tiziano Pramparo, senior author of the work from the University of California, San Diego.

While the effects caused by maternal immune activation are transient, the researchers argue that they may be very potent during fetal development and may cause different characteristics in the individual depending on when it occurs during pregnancy. 

Meanwhile, a consultant pediatrician and the Director of Clinical Services,  National Hospital, Abuja, Dr Oluseyi Oniyangi said effects of infection in pregnancy could sometimes be mild or very serious.

 “When infections occurs in the mother it is possible it can affect the unborn child,” she said.

She said, since the first trimester is the most sensitive stage in the development of a baby, any infection or pathology that affects the baby at this stage usually is most devastating and tend to have the most effect on the unborn child.

“Because the infections occur when the organs are being formed, the baby may be born with a smaller size than a new born baby should weigh. A new born should weigh more than 2.5 kilograms. Other effects include prolonged jaundice, rashes, cataracts in the eyes or with small size head like the zika virus. They may have heart defects like hole in the heart. They may also have inflammation of the liver in some instances,” she said.

Dr Oniyangi said that some of these defects were compatible with life while some are not. “They tend to have high degree of mortality especially in the first year of life and even when the children survive, it can be a cause for mental retardation in the children or cerebral palsy,” she said.

The treatment she said, depended on what was seen on the child.  “For example the child with a small size head whose brain was not properly developed, there is nothing that can be done other than helping him or her live a life that is compatible with its own degree of development.  But if the child has cataract, new born syphilis or herpes, we can treat them with drugs,” she said.

She said the most devastating was the one that had long time effects like mental retardation, as it has no treatment. 

“When it sets in, the child will not be able to achieve his full potential in life,” she said.

Dr Oniyangi  said prevention was the most effective way to tackle these infections, adding that when they occur in a new born, early detection and treatment was necessary. 

She said one way to prevent it, was to ensure that we have healthy children before they grow into adulthood. 

She said: “For instance, children should have rubella vaccination as girls before they get into adulthood and get pregnant, this will help the babies not to contact the infection. Others such as, sexually transmitted diseases can be avoided through proper education;   attending antenatal clinic will enable the woman have proper education about her unborn child.  She gets education to keep herself healthy and take care of her unborn child, and to eat properly so that she can have improved nutrition to fight infections.”

She advised pregnant women to avoid keeping pets like cats to prevent being infected. 

“When you have a pet, take it to veterinary doctors for proper vaccination. Keep your environment clean to avoid mosquitoes, make use of mosquito treated nets because we don’t know how far this Zika virus travels,” she said.

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