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You have heard that genital herpes can never truly be cured and remains with you for life. It resurfaces when your body is vulnerable and you worry whether this could have an impact on your future child. Let's look at the facts on pregnancy and herpes.

You remember the doctor’s words from your last visit to the clinic. They stuck with you ever since; there is no cure for genital herpes. You were informed of all the signs to watch out for, when to be most vigilant for outbreaks and took all the right precautions. And yet, here you are with the tell-tale symptoms of red sores and painful urination and to top it all off you are pregnant. You are understandably worried about your child; you would never wish for them to have to suffer a similar fate and you wonder what consequences genital herpes during pregnancy would have on their development in the womb.

The basics of genital herpes

Genital herpes is caused by two types of HSV, type 1 (HSV-1) and type 2 (HSV-2). HSV-2 causes genital sores and is the most common cause of what we call genital herpes. The time between transmission of the virus to a new host and the onset of symptoms is between 2 to 14 days in adults. However, most infections with HSV-2 occur with some mild tingling or itching in the genital area or without the presentation of any symptoms at all, resulting in many being unaware that they have contracted the illness. To make matters worse, the disease lives on indefinitely in the body, regardless of whether a person received any treatment for it. This means that herpes can rear its head when you are at your most vulnerable, such as during illness or stress. [1] While this may sound frightening, many already live with viruses in their body, such as people who have suffered from chicken pox, to no ill effect.

Genital herpes during pregnancy

When it comes to genital herpes during pregnancy, it turns out that with the right precautions being taken, you should not have to worry about the well being of your child. There may be an increased risk of a herpes outbreak during pregnancy due to all the stresses associated with it, along with the fact that a mother’s immune system is naturally weaker during pregnancy to help prevent any harm to the child. As a result, women who acquired genital herpes prior to pregnancy have a 75% chance of at least one recurrence of the disease, and 14% will experience minor symptoms and sores at the time of delivery. It is worth noting that the number of outbreaks decrease over time. [2]

Transmission of herpes

The rates of transmission of the herpes virus to the child vary, but the risk is much lower, at 1.3%, if you have already suffered from the disease. This is much better than those who acquire the disease for the first time late in pregnancy, where transmission rates are as high as 50%! This is because your immune system has already come in contact with the disease and produced antibodies against it the virus particles, which helps keep the symptoms from flaring up. These antibodies have been transferred to the child’s system as well, providing them with much needed protection. [3]

Delivery options

As long you are not displaying any overt symptoms of the illness, such as red sores in the genital region, then your child should be relatively safe until the time of delivery. If such sores show up, antiviral medications such as acyclovir or valacyclovir can be provided to either suppress the presentation of sores by the due date or shorten the duration of any symptoms that do arise. Do not worry, studies show that medications such as acyclovir or valacyclovir are safe for your baby at all stages of pregnancy. [4]

Even if you were to present with such symptoms at the time of delivery, the doctors can provide you with the option to proceed with a caesarean section, which is a surgery where the delivery is performed through a cut made along your abdomen and uterus, to help further decrease the risk of transmission. This is because 85% of  newborns become infected with maternally transmitted herpes is during vaginal birth, which is attributed to contact  between infected sores and genital secretions with the newborn's skin. [5] In the event that there is a suspected herpes infection in the newborn, known as neonatal herpes, prompt, effective treatment in the form of antiviral therapy and any additional supportive treatment can be provided to the child. Failure to do so can result in grave consequences following the subsequent infection, which ranges from nerve and brain damage to even death.[6]

Once you are armed with the knowledge, take the best care of yourself and your child by continuing with your regularly scheduled visits to your primary healthcare professional and be sure to inform of any uneasy symptoms or feelings you may have that may signal genital herpes during pregnancy. You will be able to negotiate the best treatment plan for both you and your baby to move forward with. [7]

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