An extremely common, easy-to-cure female infection is responsible for about 6 percent of all premature births, making it a major underlying cause of infant mortality, researchers say.
The condition, called bacterial vaginosis, affects up to one-quarter of all pregnant women and can be eliminated with standard antibiotics. But most women who are infected don’t even know it.
Two studies published today demonstrate the potential benefits of routinely screening and treating pregnant women for the infection.
One of the studies found that pregnant women with the vaginal infection have a 40 percent higher than usual risk of prematurely delivering undersize babies. Such infants run a high risk of dying in their first few weeks.
“This syndrome is not taken seriously by health care providers. This study suggests this very common vaginal syndrome could be a very significant health problem for pregnant women,” said Dr. Sharon L. Hillier of the University of Pittsburgh, lead author of one of the studies.
Premature birth is the biggest problem of maternity care. Yet up to now, there has been little doctors could do to stop it other than to warn pregnant women against smoking and drinking. Bacterial vaginosis “is a potentially preventable cause of preterm birth,” Hillier said.
The most common sign of infection is a fishy odor. But “a lot of people assume that a fishy odor is normal for women,” Hillier said. Other symptoms can include vaginal irritation and excessive moisture or discharge.
This infection is distinct from yeast infections. It results when a variety of unwanted bacteria invade the vagina, displacing the microbes that ordinarily live there.
Douching increases the risk of the infection. So does having multiple sexual partners, although the infection is also common among monogamous women.
Just how the infection triggers early birth is unclear. However, researchers suspect the bacteria get into the amniotic fluid or the membranes that surround the fetus.
Each year, about 440,000 babies are born prematurely in the United States. Such babies account for about three-quarters of all deaths in the first month of life.
Babies born too small are 40 times more likely than normal-size infants to die in their first month. They also run a higher risk of retardation, blindness and learning problems.