Varicella

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Varicella poses a serious danger to a developing fetus.  Alcohol, tobacco, and caffeine get most of the attention when it comes to teratogens because they are part of most people’s everyday life.  But expectant parents’ concern cannot stop at the obvious information. But expectant parents’ concern cannot stop at the obvious information.  Extensive research has been done in the field of teratology as medical science has improved, revealing how everyday substances and diseases can cause serious birth defects.  The Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital explained that the effects of teratogens are a concern as early as ten days after conception (“Teratogens”).  It is never too early to be wary. Expectant parents usually want all the facts available regarding the health of their child and teratogens should be one of the first things they learn about so they can avoid as many risks as possible while going about their day during the pregnancy.

The Varicella-Zoster Virus (VZV), commonly known as the chickenpox, is a highly contagious variant of the herpes virus (“Varicella”).  It is transmitted by contact or when an infected person sneezes or coughs.  Most people contract it as children and become immune.  A very few are immune naturally and even those who don’t get the disease until adulthood don’t have much to worry about.  It poses a risk to the elderly, but with treatment it is very rarely fatal or even permanently damaging.  Chickenpox is contagious one to two days before any symptoms show and only becomes more easily transmitted as the rash forms and blisters break (“Varicella”).  The virus could be easily carried to a pregnant woman without anyone involved realizing it.  If either of the parents deal with children on a regular basis, they need to be extra careful of any chickenpox outbreaks.  Unfortunately, once a person has VZV the disease can develop without showing symptoms for up to 16 days, making it very difficult to avoid an infected person early on (“Varicella”).  Even if a person caught chickenpox as a child, it is possible to contract it again so the only way to guarantee protection is to avoid potential carriers entirely.

A fetus is most vulnerable to the effects of Varicella during the first 20 weeks of pregnancy; if the mother contracts a VZV infection during this stage the fetus has a 2 percent chance of developing a variety of birth defects called Congenital Varicella Syndrome (“Varicella”).  Since pregnancy is not even confirmed until the 12th week this represents an extremely dangerous time as the woman may not yet be taking measures to protect the developing fetus.  Women who are trying to get pregnant need to be constantly aware of the risk VZV presents.  Doctors have determined that the defects associated with CVS are scars, muscle and bone flaws, deformed or paralyzed limbs, undersized skull, blindness, seizures, and cognitive deficits (“Varicella”).  Once detected, it is too late to reverse or even slow this damage as the cause, the chickenpox, has probably passed as far as the mother is concerned.  Even at a 2 percent chance, the damage is not worth the chance when avoiding the danger is as simple as keeping away from others infected with chickenpox.  After the first 20 weeks, the danger to the fetus goes down considerably if the mother contracts VZV.

There is a chickenpox vaccine available to those who have never been infected.  If a couple is trying to get pregnant and the mother or father have never had the chicken pox, a doctor might recommend that person receive the vaccine before the couple tries to conceive.  The vaccine poses a slight risk of causing the infection, so this would likely be done far enough in advance be sure it didn’t cause a VZV infection.  Otherwise, there is little to be done about a viral threat.  Chickenpox affects both genders and all races and socioeconomic classes equally and is equally virulent to people of all ages if they have not already been infected.

The Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital at Stanford’s website provides information intended to raise the awareness of existing and potential parents.  The hospital itself is a fully functioning healthcare facility and teaching hospital while the website provides basic overviews of a number of different health concerns, including teratogens.  There are not many technical explanations of medical conditions or hazards.  The site is more of a general overview that might alert a parent that their child needs medical attention, or help the parent avoid that need.  Simple facts like those on the LPCH website can go a long way toward improving the health of parents and children alike, ensuring that babies are born healthy and grow up the same way.

Works Cited

"Teratogens Overview." Packard Children's Hospital at Stanford LPCH: Northern California Children's Hospital. N.p., n.d. Web. 29 Sept. 2011. http://www.lpch.org/DiseaseHealthInfo/HealthLibrary/genetics/tover.html

"Varicella." Stanford Children's Health - Lucile Packard Children's Hospital Stanford, www.lpch.org/DiseaseHealthInfo/HealthLibrary/genetics/varicel.html.