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Pregnancy and Sexually Transmitted Diseases

After sailing through her third pregnancy, Lis, a 37-year-old mother from upstate New York, gave birth to a boy in January. As she held her new son, Simon, he seemed happy and healthy, weighing in at 9 pounds, 1 ounce, and racking up a 9 out of a possible 10 points on the Apgar scale of newborn health. Five days later, his first infant checkup was equally reassuring  -- until the pediatrician noticed small bumps on his face, near his eyes. He inspected them carefully, 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 developed small sores and had unexpectedly 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 ever suggested that I get tested. No one ever said to me 'You could have herpes and not know it.'" Unfortunately, like most people with herpes, Lis didn't know she was infected because she had never had any symptoms. Simon was rushed to a nearby medical center where a DNA spinal tap test confirmed that he had neonatal herpes, a condition which usually results in severe central nervous system damage and often in death. He spent the next three weeks in the hospital, where he underwent another spinal tap and received intravenous doses of acyclovir, an antiviral drug.

Fortunately, Simon beat extraordinary odds and was able to go home. "By some miracle we caught this early and he was treated soon enough that he never got sick," says Lis. Now, at 7 months old, Simon is thriving, doing everything babies his age are meant to do. But his parents wish they could spare others the terrifying experience they had. "We spent the first four weeks of our seemingly healthy baby's life in an intensive care unit because of the devastating effects this virus has on a newborn."

Sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) are perhaps the most overlooked threat to babies today. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 19 million Americans are infected with an STD each year. Countless women have herpes or the human papillomavirus, which can cause genital warts and cervical cancer, or live with curable STDs like chlamydia or gonorrhea but don't know it  -- and don't understand the harm they can pose to a newborn.

Because these diseases often do not cause noticeable symptoms, many pregnant women don't find out they have an STD until it's too late. Untreated, these infections can cause preterm labor and the related complications of low birth weight, in addition to blindness, pneumonia, brain damage, developmental disabilities, and even death. STDs can be hazardous for the mother as well: Many can compromise a woman's fertility or increase the risk of the transmission of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.