Many women who become infected with hepatitis C usually hesitate to become pregnant because they believe that they might pass on their infection to their unborn child. To help you understand how HCV may affect you and/or your infant, here are some basic facts you need to know.
There Is a Risk of Passing on Hepatitis C During Pregnancy, but It’s Significantly Low
The hepatitis C virus is rarely passed on from a pregnant woman to her unborn child.1 According to a study published in the World Journal of Gastroenterology (WJG), there is only a 3 to 5 percent chance, and when it happens, it usually occurs during childbirth, and not while the infant is inside the mother.2
Roughly 6 out of every 100 infants born to mothers who are hepatitis C-positive become infected with the virus.3
It is unlikely that you will transmit hepatitis C to your baby if you have low levels of the virus in your blood. However, if you have high levels of the virus in your bloodstream, already have serious liver damage or are in the acute phase of infection, then the risk of transmission is higher.4
The risk also becomes greater if you have both hepatitis C and untreated HIV, as there is a 20 percent chance that you will pass on hepatitis C to your child.5 According to a report in the Annals of Internal Medicine, at least 4,000 newborn babies every year get the infection from their mothers.6
The good news is that hepatitis C apparently does not have any negative effects on the course of the pregnancy, nor will it affect the birth weight of the baby. 7
Normal Versus Caesarean Delivery: Does It Increase the Risk?
Some HCV-positive mothers fear that undergoing normal delivery many put their infant at high risk of getting infected, and opt for scheduled caesarean delivery instead. But this is not necessary, as the delivery method does not have an effect on your child’s risk.8
After examining 18 studies from 1947 to 2012, researchers at the Oregon Health and Science University found that there is no clear connection between the delivery method and the risk of passing on the virus.
The researchers did point out, however, that there were a few limitations in the studies, such as their small sample sizes and methodology drawbacks.9 So in order to assess your risk, it is advisable to undergo screening before childbirth — or better yet, even before you become pregnant.
Consult Your Physician About Hepatitis C Screening
A study from the CDC found that the rates of HCV in women of childbearing age have increased between 2011 and 2014.10 This makes it all the more important to know if you have this potentially damaging ailment. Since it does not exhibit symptoms during the early stages, many women are usually unaware that they have the virus.
Note that there are certain factors that may increase your risk of hepatitis C, including using intravenous drugs, having tattoos done in unsanitary establishments and having intercourse with someone with HCV infection (although the chances of getting the infection from intercourse is very slim).11 If any of these risk factors apply to you, then you should consider having a hepatitis C blood test done.
Unlike the hepatitis B blood test, HCV screening is not routinely offers to all pregnant women.12 However, let your midwife or obstetrician know that you may have these risk factors, so he or she can offered you the blood test. This will help put your mind at ease. If the test does reveal that you have the virus, your doctor will help you come up with a plan for other scenarios, such as breastfeeding.
Breastfeeding If You Have Hepatitis C
You may become hesitant to breastfeed because of your hepatitis C infection, which is unfortunate, as breastfeeding is the best and most nutritionally dense food for babies. But don’t worry — researchers have found that there is no significant evidence that HCV can be transferred via breastmilk.13 Although there have been traces of the virus found in the breastmilk and colostrum, the amounts are so small that they are not enough to transmit the infection.14
The case is different, however, if you have HIV. If you have both HCV and HIV, then breastfeeding may not be advisable. If you also experience a flare-up and jaundice after your baby has been born, you should avoid breastfeeding.15
Nevertheless, be aware that there are instances when breastfeeding may pose a possible risk. For example, if you have cracked nipples and your baby has scratches or small tears around his mouth, blood to blood contact may occur. In this case, you should discard the breastmilk and avoid breastfeeding until your nipple cracks and your baby’s wounds have both completely healed.16