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Fifth disease in pregnant women

Last updated on July 10, 2024 First published on June 12, 2024

Cases of rubella have increased in Switzerland in recent months. The USZ is also seeing a significant increase in cases of fifth disease (erythema infectiosum). "We normally carry out an umbilical cord transfusion for rubella on average once a year, but recently it has been up to two to three times a week," says Nina Kimmich, Head Physician at the Department of Obstetrics at the USZ.

Fifth disease is a viral disease that mainly affects children – the disease manifests itself as a characteristic skin rash in the form of rings. Adults, on the other hand, often remain asymptomatic – if they develop symptoms, they are flu-like complaints such as fever, headaches or joint pain.

Dangers for unborn babies

The infectious disease can be particularly dangerous for unborn children. “The virus can attach itself to the unborn child’s red blood cells and destroy them,” says Nina Kimmich. This leads to anemia, in which the child’s heart has to work harder to compensate for the lack of oxygen. Without treatment, this can lead to serious complications such as heart muscle weakness and water retention in the body, as well as long-term neurological problems. In severe cases, the child can die in the womb.

“An umbilical cord transfusion requires a high level of technical expertise and a hospital that is able to provide comprehensive care for premature babies!”

Nina Kimmich, Senior Attending Physician

Treatment options

If severe anemia is detected, an umbilical cord transfusion can be performed. This procedure is technically demanding and is only offered in specialized centers such as the USZ. “Umbilical cord transfusion is a life-saving measure for the unborn child,” explains Nina Kimmich. “It requires a high level of technical expertise and a hospital that is able to provide comprehensive care for premature babies.”

Prevention and recommendations

Around 40 percent of pregnant women are not immune to rubella. A simple blood test can determine whether you are immune. Nina Kimmich recommends that non-immune pregnant women take special precautions: “Pregnant women who are not immune should wear a face mask in risk situations, wash their hands frequently and avoid contact with children’s saliva.” This is especially true in the first 20 weeks of pregnancy, as treatment is particularly challenging with such small fetuses.

If pregnant women notice flu-like symptoms, they should consult a doctor. Close monitoring is necessary in order to detect and treat a possible infection at an early stage. After an infection of the mother, regular follow-up checks should be carried out to ensure that the unborn child is not affected.

Current situation

Experts are currently advising pregnant women to be cautious and have regular check-ups. As many people are not informed about the dangers of fifth disease, education is particularly important. “Many patients, including those who work with children, know little about the disease,” says Nina Kimmich.

Nina Kimmich, PD Dr. med.

Senior Attending Physician, Department of Obstetrics

Tel. +41 44 255 11 11
Specialties: Specialist in fetomaternal medicine, FMH, Invasive and non-invasive prenatal diagnostics, Birth injuries/postpartum pelvic floor diagnostics

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