Maternal Infections & Legal Liability for Related Malpractice
During pregnancy or childbirth, an expectant mother may transmit an infection to the baby. Often, infections cause much more severe consequences to a fetus or child than the mother. Complications of infections that are not properly diagnosed and treated may lead to permanent disabilities, such as cerebral palsy, or may even threaten the life of the child. Two of the most notable types of maternal infections are:
Chorioamnionitis: This is an infection of the amniotic fluid that may occur after the amniotic sac breaks, allowing bacteria to travel from the vagina to the uterus. Chorioamnionitis may cause meningitis in the brain and spinal cord or sepsis in the bloodstream. Either of these conditions can be life-threatening.
Group B strep: This is a bacterial infection widespread among American women. Since it usually does not cause symptoms in a mother, a doctor should test for this condition specifically. A baby who contracts Group B strep from the mother may develop sepsis and meningitis, as well as other serious illnesses or disorders.
Mothers also may suffer from urinary tract infections, which can cause preterm labor and related complications. Other types of maternal infections that may harm a child include hepatitis B, chickenpox, rubella, syphilis, listeriosis, and more.
If a baby develops hepatitis B, they likely will live with this condition permanently. This can eventually result in liver disease, as well as cancer. However, a doctor can prevent a baby from developing maternally transmitted hepatitis B by providing injections after birth. This is why doctors routinely test expectant mothers for hepatitis B during pregnancy.
Many children endure a bout of chickenpox (varicella) without suffering significant harm, but this condition may have more serious effects on a fetus. Congenital varicella syndrome can arise from a chickenpox infection transmitted from the mother. A child born with this condition may suffer head or brain injuries, including hydrocephalus and cerebral palsy. Congenital varicella syndrome also can cause problems with vision and skin. If a mother received the chickenpox vaccine or had a previous chickenpox infection, she likely will not contract chickenpox, and her baby will not develop congenital varicella syndrome.
A viral infection that was once widespread, rubella has been largely eradicated through vaccination and rarely appears in the modern US. However, a baby who does acquire rubella from their mother may develop congenital rubella syndrome. If they have not been vaccinated, a woman may want to be vaccinated against rubella as soon as they find out that they are pregnant, or if they are planning to get pregnant. Congenital rubella syndrome may cause heart defects and problems with vision and hearing, in addition to cerebral palsy.
Most people think of listeriosis as an uncomfortable but unthreatening problem. This is a bacterial infection linked to raw food. If a mother transmits listeriosis to her baby, though, they may suffer brain damage. Listeriosis normally can be resolved with antibiotics.
If a mother has active vaginal sores from syphilis, the infection may be transmitted to the baby during childbirth. A mother also may transmit the infection through the placenta during pregnancy. A risk of transmitting syphilis in this way can be hard to detect because symptoms may not emerge for many years after infection. Syphilis may be life-threatening in a baby, and they also may suffer brain damage and problems with vision and hearing if they survive.
A single-cell organism called Toxoplasma gondii appears in most people. Sometimes it leads to a parasitic infection. A mother may not show any symptoms of this infection, but she may transmit toxoplasmosis to her child if she is infected for the first time during pregnancy or shortly before it. Like syphilis, congenital toxoplasmosis may cause brain damage and problems with vision and hearing.
Medical Errors in Diagnosing and Treating Maternal Infections
If they are pregnant or planning to get pregnant, women should take certain precautions, such as washing their hands with soap and getting tested for sexually transmitted diseases. Even if a woman acts carefully, though, her doctor still has a responsibility to account for the risks of maternal infections. A doctor may fail to warn an expectant mother about the potential complications of common infections, or they may fail to conduct proper tests to identify them. Promptly diagnosing an infection can make a huge difference in preventing or mitigating its consequences. Thus, doctors should conduct certain tests routinely during pregnancy.
If a doctor does not order the appropriate tests, and a child suffers from severe health problems as a result, their parents may be able to sue the doctor for medical malpractice. They would need to show that a competent doctor would have ordered these tests for a pregnant woman similar to the mother. A missed or delayed diagnosis after testing also may support a medical malpractice claim. Parents should promptly consult an attorney if they think that malpractice occurred. They must file their lawsuit within the statute of limitations or likely lose the right to compensation. A successful medical malpractice claim may provide parents with reimbursement for the costs of medical treatment for their child, possibly including future treatment. The child also may recover compensation for their pain and suffering.