When Rinn was born I had a bottle of Purell in every room. At the time we lived a small two bedroom apartment, so it’s not like it was that many bottles but I was hypervigilant in making sure that everyone who entered our space applied it generously before handling my precious babe. At that point in his life I wasn’t too keen on germs, and I had every right to be.
While antibodies are passed from mom to infant during gestation, and even more are transmitted if you choose to breastfeed, babies immune systems are only a fraction of that in adults. An immune system matures as the body is exposed to various bacteria and viruses, white blood cells then identify those intruders and produce antibodies to fight the infection. They also remember each attack so that they can fight it more easily the next time.
All of this to prepare them for the day they decide to eat old popcorn off the floor at the movie theater because you turned your back for 2.3 seconds. Really, where’s the adventure in eating fresh popcorn out of a tub when eating floor popcorn carries such risks like contracting a stomach virus or the black plague? If you think about it, two-year-olds really take that whole YOLO approach to life to new levels.
Anyway, unless you skipped every biology class you were ever supposed to take I think most of you are familiar with how germs and the immune system works so I’ll leave it at the brief synopsis above.
What startles me as of recently is the abundance of articles and exposês covering babies contracting various bacterial and viral infections from being kissed under seemingly harmless circumstances. You know the ones I’m talking about:
Even when I wasn’t pregnant these stories broke my heart. Now I can’t even stomach reading the titles out loud without choking on tears. Hormones, am I right.
I find myself wondering why kissing and handling babies has recently become so taboo, or if it’s always deserved a slap on the wrist and I just missed a bunch of media coverage when I had my first kid. Was I too busy watching Ellen and binging every episode of One Tree Hill on Netflix to notice that the world was warning me not to let people handle and kiss Rinn when he was an infant? Or has this only recently gained media attention because there really is a sudden onslaught of babies in dire circumstances because they were touched or kissed by a carrier of the herpes virus?
And furthermore, are newborn babies now in more danger than ever or is this just another instance of the media sensationalizing tragedy at the expense of the sanity of mothers everywhere?
I did a casual google search and couldn’t find any news coverage detailing babies contracting the herpes virus before 2016. While I’m sure these types of cases existed prior to 2016, they don’t appear to have been covered by the media. I feel only a little better knowing that at the very least I didn’t blatantly ignore any public service announcements and anything I exposed Rinn too was out of sheer ignorance. But is stupidity really any better than negligence? I won’t even begin to tackle that argument.
Of course this doesn’t answer all of my questions.
So, according to a new report by the National Center for Health Statistics of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (say that five times fast) the rate of herpes infection has actually DECLINED from 1999 to 2016. Awesome, right! But while the decrease is good news, an estimated 3.7 billion people are infected globally.
Yes I said, BILLION. That’s 67% of the world! I should note that America is home to the least infected population with 48% of its people walking around with HSV-1. Think about it this way, that’s half the people you know. Sorry new mamas, the odds are still stacked against you. But before you start throwing stones, know that herpes can lay dormant for YEARS without causing any noticeable symptoms and because of this many people don’t even know they have it. Yeah, I’m talking to you Janet.
Consider it; HALF the population is infected and a majority of those people are COMPLETELY UNAWARE that they fall into that half, so of course infants and their inadequate immune systems are at risk.
I still think the media does a bang up job of capitalizing on fear mongering:
PANIC! Terror Attack!
Do YOU know what is in your drinking water?
I mean, when was the last time you saw a headline about water skiing squirrels in all caps?
But this risk is actually VERY REAL.
I’m not suggesting that you board up your windows before baby comes or become a hermit until it’s time to register for preschool but I do think you should take every reasonable precaution when it comes to protecting your baby from a preventable illness. If you think that includes making everyone who comes to visit for the first six months wear a hazmat suit and you can afford to enforce such strict regulations, by all means go for it. Also, send me pictures because I would love to see your Grandma Ethel sitting on the couch, cradling your newborn in a head-to-toe plastic coverall. I’d pay for that kind of entertainment.
But there are a number of more practical defense mechanisms you can employ to keep baby healthy while he or she builds her immune system.
1. Insist on hand-washing. Let me rephrase that, demand hand-washing or the use of hand sanitizer or have everyone wear those giant rubber gloves your mom used to wear to wash the dishes. It’s not like you’re asking them to view the baby from behind protective glass like a sneeze guard at an all-you-can-eat buffet. (Unless of course, they’re sick then refer to #3). And if anyone tries to resist with the whole “Oh come on, I’ll look ridiculous!” argument, just show them this picture of Lady Gaga at the Oscars in 2015. Okay, so they do look kind of ridiculous. Whatever.
2. Implement the art of redirection. If Aunt Gertrude just can’t keep her potentially life-threatening lips off your newborn, give her a doll of the same height and weight and hope her dementia has set in enough that she doesn’t notice. I kid, I kid. Just ask that she keeps her kisses to babe’s feet or something, or better yet to just keep banking them until your child is old enough to survive a common cold. Say 12.
3. Ask that those who are sick stay away. At least until they’ve recovered from whatever ailment is ailing them. If they just HAVE to come over to see the miracle you made (I mean, can you blame them?) politely invite them to stand on your front porch and promise to leave your blinds open.
If you’re reading this as a visitor, of our baby or someone else's, I’m sure you’re rolling your eyes and thinking “listen to this paranoid, helicopter mom, didn’t she just open a debate on Facebook about the pros and cons of vaccinating and now she’s going to warn us all on the dangers of herpes?” All I can say is I’m a complicated woman and the parameters under which I parent aren’t black and white so don’t kiss my baby or ask about vaccines and know that you’re more than welcome to stand on the front porch if you can’t comply with any of the rules I’ve laid out above. But you should know that our goats have laid claim to the porch and will either be there napping or treating it as their own personal jungle gym.
Wash your hands or run the risk of being head-butted and leave smelling like a billy goat. The choice is yours.