Tracking neonatal herpes

And the new meningitis vaccine, warning to pregnant women about rodents


Heather Cunningham


Health roundup Research shows that one in four pregnant women has genital herpes, and many don’t know it, because the symptoms are not always visible and the virus does not always show up in lab tests.

While there is no cure for herpes, the disease rarely causes serious health problems for the women—but it does cause blistering, fever, brain damage and heart and liver complications in as many as 2,800 U.S. newborns each year who are exposed to the virus during delivery.

Some researchers now urge the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to request state reporting of neonatal herpes so the condition can be tracked and researched. The report was financed by GlaxoSmithKline, which makes medication to treat herpes.

Illinois does not report neonatal herpes infections to the CDC. Only Connecticut, Florida, Massachusetts, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio and Washington do—even though it affects more babies than other nationally reported diseases such as congenital rubella, syphilis, gonorrhea and HIV.

Jennifer Ruth, a CDC spokesperson, says the CDC has no evidence that national reporting of neonatal herpes would lead to better case management or fewer complications. She says the CDC is looking into ways to prevent initial herpes infections in pregnant women and study the role of antiviral medication in containing the disease.

According to the National Institutes for Health, antiviral medication can help prevent an outbreak of herpes at the end of the pregnancy. If a woman does have a herpes outbreak near delivery, a Caesarean section can reduce the chance that she will pass herpes to the fetus.

Vaccine protects kids from meningitis

As the school year progresses, so does the chance that cases of viral and bacterial meningitis in local children and teens will rise. There have been 12 documented cases of meningitis in Illinois since the beginning of 2005—most of them in the off-season. Health experts say cases peak in fall and winter when the viruses that cause meningitis are more prevalent. The condition occurs more frequently in kids who attend childcare centers or schools, particularly boarding schools, or who live in college dorms.

This summer the Food and Drug Administration licensed the new meningococcal conjugated vaccine (MCV4) to help protect preteens against conditions that cause meningitis. Both the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices support the vaccine and recommend giving it to all 11- and 12-year-olds at their regular exams.

"The major concern has been the college freshman age group, but giving the vaccine earlier will also protect kids who are starting to spend more time together, attending more sleep-over camps and the like, who are also at risk," says Keith R. Powell, chairman of pediatrics at Akron Children’s Hospital in Ohio and chairman of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Red Book Committee.

Powell says that the vaccine will not eradicate meningitis, because the condition—an inflammation of the covering of the brain—can be the body’s response to a variety of viruses. However, the vaccine does target the virus N. meningitides, the leading cause of bacterial meningitis cases.

"Bacterial meningitis is the form that health care providers worry about most," says Powell. "It can happen so quickly, and take someone with absolutely perfect health and kill them in less than a day."

Common meningitis symptoms include fever, lethargy and irritability. Older kids may complain of headache, sensitivity to light or a stiff neck. Call your child’s doctor immediately if your child shows any of these warning signs.

Rodent virus can infect a fetus

The CDC warns that pregnant women should avoid contact with hamsters or guinea pigs, which can carry the lymphocytic choriomeningitis virus. While the viral infection is generally mild in adults, pregnant women who are infected during their first or second trimester of pregnancy can pass the condition to their fetus. The results can cause hydrocephalus, psychomotor retardation, blindness or even death.

Even though wild house mice are the primary host of the virus, in May the CDC received reports of four adults who were infected by a pet hamster. Several guinea pigs from the same Rhode Island pet store also carried the disease. While the American Academy of Obstetricians and Gynecologists has yet to develop guidelines for pregnant women regarding this virus, the CDC recommends that pet rodents be kept in a separate part of the home, another family member clean and care for the pet and pregnant women avoid "prolonged stays in the room where the rodent resides."

Symptoms of the infection, which occurs one to two weeks after exposure, include fever, stiff neck, lack of appetite, muscle aches, headache, nausea and vomiting.

Heather Cunningham is an award-winning writer living in Batavia who writes frequently on parenting and health issues.

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