Can your baby become immune if you’re pregnant and you have malaria?
Some of the protective antibodies that the mother produces when she has malaria can pass to her baby via the placenta. There is also evidence for immune system “priming” in foetuses when their mothers have been infected my malaria during pregnancy. However, these potentially protective effects are usually far outweighed by the negative effects of malaria during pregnancy.
Due to changes to the mother’s immune system and also perhaps due to the creation and physiology of the placenta, pregnant women are very vulnerable to malaria. For reasons which are not fully understood, women experiencing their first pregnancy (primagravidae) are most susceptible to malaria and their foetuses are most likely to have severe effects. These effects vary depending on the immune status of the mother and whether she is from an endemic or low transmission malaria environment, but typical results include low birth weight, anaemia and spontaneous abortion—abortion rates due to malaria can vary between 15-70%.
There is also the risk (up to 33% in some studies) that malaria will pass directly from the mother to the baby, either through the placenta or in blood during childbirth—this is called “congenital malaria,” and can manifest as early as 1 day after delivery but a late as months after. The symptoms are similar to that of adult malaria, with fever, anaemia, lethargy, etc.
Given these negative effects, it is very important to protect pregnant women against malaria, and bednet distribution schemes in many places target these women. In high transmission settings, women may also be offered intermittent preventive therapy (IPT) which consists of at least two doses of anti-malarial medication, usually once during the second and once during the third trimester.