After sailing through her third pregnancy, Lis, a 37-year-old mother from New York, gave birth to a nine-pound boy, Simon, in January. Five days later, his first checkup was reassuring -- until the pediatrician noticed small bumps on his face, near his eyes. He inspected them, then turned to Lis and her husband and asked if either of them had herpes.
Lis's body went cold. Two years earlier, her husband had been diagnosed with genital herpes. "The doctor told us that my husband could have gotten the virus years before and never had an outbreak," she recalls. "But no one suggested that I get tested. No one ever said, 'You could have herpes and not know it.'" Like up to 90 percent of people with herpes, Lis had never had any symptoms.
After spending three weeks in the hospital being treated for neonatal herpes -- a condition which can result in severe central nervous system damage and even death -- Simon beat the odds and was able to go home. "By some miracle, he was treated soon enough that he never got sick," says Lis. Now, at 7 months, he's thriving.
Sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) are perhaps the most overlooked threat to babies today. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), over 65 million Americans are now living with an incurable STD and 19 million more are infected each year. Because these diseases often don't cause noticeable symptoms, many moms-to-be don't find out they have an STD until it's too late. "Pregnant women are more likely to know about the remote risk of contracting toxoplasmosis from changing the kitty litter than about the dangerous ways an STD can affect their baby," says Linda Alexander, Ph.D., former president of the American Social Health Association (ASHA). Untreated, these infections can cause preterm labor, blindness, pneumonia, developmental disabilities, and even death.
Perhaps the greatest tragedy of all is that most STDs can be easily detected and managed -- if not completely cured -- during pregnancy. Your doctor can test you and your partner, but you may need to ask to be screened. Routine tests are offered only for hepatitis B, syphilis, and HIV; your doctor may not screen you for other infections unless she thinks that you're at risk. But the fact is, even married women like Lis are vulnerable. "The single most important message about STDs is that everyone is at risk -- it doesn't matter what your current or past sexual behavior is," says Lyn Finelli, Ph.D., an epidemiologist at the CDC in Atlanta. Here's what you need to know to keep you -- and your baby -- healthy.
Lorie A. Parch is a freelance writer in Scottsdale, Arizona.