Coronavirus: mother-baby transmission unproven despite case of newborn

News that a 30-hour-old newborn baby had become the youngest person to have been diagnosed with coronavirus has prompted speculation that the potentially lethal illness could potentially be passed from a mother to a fetus.

But medical experts have warned against drawing conclusions so early in investigation of the virus, which has infected 24,500 people mostly in China.

“We’re still in the deep learning curve about this virus,” said Dr Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas. Hotez developed a vaccine for Sars, another coronavirus which spread in China in 2003. “There’s more we don’t know than we do know” about the new coronavirus, he said.

Some viruses can be passed from mother to child through breastmilk or through the placenta during pregnancy. Such cases of maternal transmission are called “vertical transmission” by researchers.

Such transmission does happens in rubella – also known as German measles or three-day measles – and in some cases in HIV. But such behavior in viruses is uncommon, said Hotez, especially among respiratory illnesses such as the coronavirus.

Viruses that can be transmitted through the placenta, or intrauterine, are even more uncommon.

“We know it happens for instance in HIV-Aids, but even there in the pre-retroviral drug era when I was taking care of infants with Aids, even in untreated mothers it was still only about 25% [of cases],” said Hotez.

A doctor in Wuhan, the city in Hubei province, China at the center of the coronavirus outbreak, set off speculation after he mentioned doctors needed to be on the lookout for vertical transmission in a report on Chinese state media.

Zeng Lingkong, chief physician of Wuhan children hospital’s neonatal medicine department, said, “This reminds us to pay attention to mother-to-child being a possible route of coronavirus transmission,” according to AFP.

Paul Hunter, professor in medicine, at the University of East Anglia in the UK, said that when women give birth vaginally, babies are exposed to microbes present in the the mother’s body.

“As far as I am aware there is currently no evidence that the novel coronavirus can be transmitted in the womb,” he said. “If a baby does get infected with coronavirus a few days after birth we currently cannot tell if the baby was infected in the womb or during birth.”

Hunter said that one study showed that coronaviruses (which include Mers and Sars) are more likely to increase risk of a miscarriage than be passed on in the womb.


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