A few years ago there was great concern when a Jewish baby was suspected to have contracted the herpes virus after a traditional circumcision ceremony. I imagined the infant was infected with a sharps device, used to cut the foreskin perhaps, but seemingly, these ceremonies end with the ‘mohel’, (the man performing the ritual), sucking the blood from the baby’s foreskin. Since the year 2000, almost 20 babies in the States have been infected with herpes after their circumcision. Two of those infected have since died and two more suffer with substantial brain damage. The fourth baby of just this year has been reported to have been infected with the virus as a direct result of this ceremony.
In a particularly Orthodox ritual called the metzizah b’peh, the man who performs the service actually places his mouth on the genitals of the baby at the end of the ceremony. The purpose of this is to suck the blood from the penis of the baby in order to stop it bleeding. In this particular case, the baby showed evidence of herpes infection right after he was circumcised but has since recovered and has reportedly been released from hospital. The regulation of the controversial ceremony has been called for but nothing has of yet been implemented.
Outbreaks like this also remind us of just how dangerous an infection of genital herpes is for an infant. It is thus important to remind ourselves how easily the virus can be passed to an infant in other ways. Mother to baby is the most common route and can be prevented with the knowledge of its existence via regular STI testing methods.
It is unusual for an infant to become infected in the uterus, although this is possible. If a woman becomes pregnant and she has been infected with the virus, it is possible for her to infect her child. It is most commonly passed onto a child via the birth canal. This happens when the mother has an outbreak of herpes at the time of delivery. An infant can also contract herpes via kissing or having other skin to skin contact with someone who has mouth sores caused by herpes.
Since some mothers do not know they have sores caused by the virus inside the vagina, it is important to get tested on a regular basis at a sexual health clinic or even via a herpes postal test. It has never been easier to get tested and treated and yet so many people are still not availing of this accessibility. Many people don’t even know they carry the virus, never mind having sores. You can read more about herpes symptoms here.
Herpes in infants can be very dangerous and can cause a number of complications including bleeding, breathing difficulties, jaundice, hypothermia, seizures and even coma.
If contracted inside the uterus, a baby can be susceptible to eye diseases, skin lesions and even brain damage. The outlook is often not good for babies who suffer with this virus.
The only way of protecting an infant is knowing your own herpes status. If a positive result is gleaned then treatment can be taken during the last month of pregnancy in order to treat the virus and help to prevent transmission. If herpes sores are present, then a c-section is the recommended method of delivery. More about herpes during pregnancy can be found here.
Considering how preventable it is for infants, it is vital that mother’s take care to learn more about their own sexual health. The test for herpes is simple and requires a swab or urine swab that can be taken in a sexual health clinic or via herpes postal test and analyzed in a laboratory. It takes only a few days to glean a result and treatment for outbreaks will help. You can find out about postal testing for herpes here.
It is true that the herpes virus will stay with a person once they have been infected, however, infants do not have to suffer the same fate once certain practical measures have been put in place. Getting tested is quick and easy and treatment options for keeping outbreaks at bay are successful these days. These treatment options could also save the lives of otherwise at risk infants.