Diseases That Affect a Developing Baby

During pregnancy, certain diseases that a mother may contract can be transmitted to her unborn baby. The placenta, which is the link between the mother and baby, allows some viruses to cross from mother to baby. A few diseases can have devastating effects on a developing baby, with side effects of transmission including miscarriage or serious birth defects.


Cytomegalovirus, or CMV, is a member of the herpes family and is a common viral infection among children and adults. CMV is transmitted through bodily fluids, and in most people only causes flu-like symptoms. Pregnant women who have previously contracted CMV are immune to the virus and cannot pass it along to an unborn baby, notes the March of Dimes. Babies who are born with CMV may not experience any ill effects. The March of Dimes goes on to report that 90 percent of babies with the infection have no symptoms and are not harmed. Unfortunately, for 10 to 15 percent of babies infected with this virus, complications such as hearing and vision loss can develop during their first few years of life. Complications with internal organs such as the liver and spleen can also occur.


Syphilis is a type of sexually transmitted infection that can have devastating effects on a developing baby if the disease isn’t detected and treated during pregnancy. Women with untreated syphilis during pregnancy have a 25 to 50 percent chance of suffering a miscarriage. According to the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, babies who survive the pregnancy have a 40 to 70 percent chance of contracting the infection at birth. Complications of the infection after birth include fevers, rashes, liver damage, anemia (Reference 3), meningitis and brain damage (Reference 1). Routine prenatal care usually includes testing for sexually transmitted infections, including syphilis, at the first prenatal visit. If detected, penicillin is the drug of choice for eradicating the disease in pregnant women.


Rubella is a virus previously known as German Measles. According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, a vaccine against rubella was developed in 1969 and since that time outbreaks have become rare. A condition known as congenital rubella syndrome may occur if a woman contracts rubella during pregnancy. Possible effects of this syndrome include restricted fetal growth, liver and spleen complications, deafness, brain damage, diabetes and heart defects. Women are routinely tested for immunity to rubella prenatally and are vaccinated after the birth of the child to prevent possible future infection.


Toxoplasmosis is an infection that is most frequently transmitted by cats through their feces but can also be transmitted by birds. The University of Michigan Healthy System explains that toxoplasmosis is caused by a parasite and while it isn’t easily transmitted, the risk to a developing baby can be serious. Brain damage, seizures and blindness can occur in babies who are infected. In some cases, blindness may develop 20 years after the infection occurs. Pregnant women are instructed to avoid cleaning litter boxes during pregnancy to avoid possible transmission.