The headlines earlier this week about an 18-day-old baby in Iowa who died from meningitis are not only heartbreaking, but also alarming. Doctors say the infant, Mariana Sifrit, developed the deadly infection after being exposed to the herpes virus—likely via a kiss from a well-meaning adult.
Mariana was born healthy, according to news reports, but she became ill and stopped breathing about a week later. She was rushed to the hospital, where she was diagnosed with meningitis HSV1, a swelling around the brain caused by the same virus that triggers genital herpes and cold sores.
Because both parents tested negative for the herpes virus, doctors concluded that Mariana contracted it from someone else she’d come into contact with. Mariana’s mother, Nicole Sifrit, believes that a person infected with the virus “likely touched Mariana’s hand, which she then put into her mouth,” People reports.
Sifrit hopes that her family’s devastating loss will help save other children. “Keep your babies isolated,” she told Iowa’s WHO TV. “Don’t let just anyone come visit them. Make sure they are constantly washing their hands. Don’t let people kiss your baby and make sure they ask before they pick up your baby.”
Of course, complete isolation is easier said than done, and many worried parents may be wondering if they’re doing enough to protect their vulnerable newborns. To learn more, Health spoke with Nadia Qureshi, MD, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at Loyola University Health System in Chicago. Here’s what she says everyone should know about keeping newborns safe.
The first two months are the most vulnerable
Meningitis, which refers to inflammation around the brain, can be caused by bacteria or by some viruses—including HSV1, the herpes virus. Doctors are especially concerned about meningitis during a child’s first two months of life, says Dr. Qureshi, because the immune system isn’t fully developed and an infant has not yet received all of the recommended vaccines.
Because their bodies aren’t yet equipped to fight off common germs, infections can also cause sepsis (bacteria in the bloodstream) and swelling around the heart. “If a baby this young develops a fever, we take it very seriously,” says Dr. Qureshi. “We want to assume the worse and pay close attention, even if they don’t seem sick.”
Even “mild” illnesses can be deadly
In adults, the herpes virus causes cold sores and genital lesions. But it can be much more dangerous for babies who haven’t built up antibodies to the virus. That’s also true of enterovirus—a group of viruses that may only lead to common cold–like symptoms in adults.
“Because we know these viruses can cause meningitis in babies, anyone who has any signs of infection, even just a mild runny nose, a cough, a fever, a rash, or any cold sores, should not be in close vicinity of the baby,” says Dr. Qureshi.
The herpes virus can be spread in several ways
When very young babies contract the herpes virus, it’s usually because it was transmitted by the mother during birth. This can happen even if a woman is carrying the virus but isn’t experiencing an outbreak and has no symptoms.
“But there have been cases of the virus being transferred to a newborn by other household members,” Dr. Qureshi says. “It’s rare, but it has happened.” Herpes is often spread through contact with a cold sore on the mouth, but lesions can also appear on fingers or other parts of the body, she adds. If a baby touches one of these lesions and then touches his or her mouth, infection can occur.
Take precautions, but don’t panic
“Anyone handling a baby should wash their hands regularly, and you really should avoid kissing the baby—especially on the face or the hands,” says Dr. Qureshi. “Kiss the baby’s swaddle, or the baby’s clothes, if you have to.”
That’s especially important for anyone who’s been diagnosed with herpes or has had cold sores in the past. “You don’t have to have visible lesions or symptoms to pass on the virus,” she explains. Anyone who’s had cold or flu symptoms should keep their distances, too.
Parents should also avoid exposing newborns to large gatherings or crowded, enclosed spaces (like a bus or airplane) whenever possible, because of the possibility of germ transmission. “At the same time, no one wants to be completely confined to their home,” she says. “If you want to take a stroll or go to the park where it’s outdoors in an open area, that’s generally okay.”
Dr. Qureshi stresses that it’s important to learn from Mariana’s death, but it’s also crucial to remember that these tragedies are rare. “We don’t want everyone to panic,” she says. “We want people to follow common-sense procedures, like washing hands, no unnecessary kissing, and staying away from the baby if you have any open sores.”