When I was fourteen weeks pregnant with my first daughter I noticed red spots on my chest.
There weren’t a lot but enough that after miscarrying my first baby, six months earlier, I thought I’d get it checked out. It turns out that this was the best decision I ever made because those handful of red bumps turned out to be chickenpox, a potentially lethal virus for my unborn baby.
It wasn’t a straight forward diagnosis because my GP couldn’t even be sure that this is what it was. He had not seen much of it due to the reduction of the infection because of Australia’s vaccinations against varicella, a viral illness caused by the herpes zoster virus (also known as the Varicella-Zoster virus).
Unfortunately for me, these immunisations weren’t a part of the schedule when I was growing up and I somehow missed contracting it within my youth.
After being inspected by the medical clinic’s team of doctors, I was referred on to my obstetrician who confirmed that I did indeed have varicella and that I needed to begin treatment immediately. Although it wasn’t severe for me, it was life threatening to my unborn baby if they subsequently contracted the infection, foetal varicella syndrome.
Luckily my obstetrician fit me in straight away, that very afternoon. He was thorough and sympathetic to my situation and outlined in detail what impact this ‘childhood disease’ as I had thought of it, could do. As the list of potential complications were listed to myself and my husband, my world turned upside down.
The highest risk for a baby to suffer the effects of varicella is if the mother contracts varicella within 8-20 weeks of pregnancy. I fell smack back in the middle of this time frame. Although they are rare, the complications can be extremely severe. The risks that my baby faced included skin scarring, underdeveloped arms and legs, eye defects, and incomplete brain development or brain damage.
It can also increase the risk of premature birth. I was given the option to abort my baby because although there was only a two percent risk, a risk still existed. This option, although only that, an option, made me realise how serious this situation was.
I immediately began an oral anti-viral drug to treat the infection. This would assist in reducing the severity of varicella for myself and subsequently my unborn baby. I then had to have regular ultrasounds with my obstetrician and a specialist for the remainder of my pregnancy to monitor my baby’s growth very closely.
Once I was diagnosed with varicella, my pregnancy changed from one of joy and excitement to absolute terror. Each day I would constantly think about the 'what ifs'. I would not let myself be confident that it would be OK, I would not let any sense of happiness about having my first baby come to the surface because I was sure that this would be enough to make it not be OK.
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Each appointment was anxiety ridden. I would examine the screen closely, each word and the tone of the sonographer was analysed. How could I have not known I wasn’t immune to this infection and why didn’t I get vaccinated prior to trying? The reality is, it wasn’t my fault.
Varicella wasn’t one of the diseases checked for immunity in my pre-pregnancy check-up. I didn’t even think to ask about it. I was checked for Rubella and Whooping Cough but not varicella; I assumed I had been checked for everything I needed to be checked for.
Speaking with many other friends, I actually don’t know any of them were checked for this by their doctors in their pre-pregnancy screens either. There is an assumption that you have had the chickenpox or have been immunised against it. But there are some people who fall through that gap, even if it is a small one. That was me.
My daughter, Addison, was brought into the world by emergency c-section at 39 weeks. She was a long baby, weighing it at 3.66kg with beautiful porcelain skin. The paediatrician examined her from head to toe in the delivery room as I watched from the table.
After what seemed like eternity he handed her to my husband with a smile. My girl was perfectly healthy with no signs of varicella infection. I was overwhelmed with relief.
Varicella immunity can be checked by a blood test like other diseases. A vaccination is now available if you are not immune. A simple process to ensure this experience doesn’t happen to you. Consult your GP or a health care professional if you are pregnant and have any concerns.