The infectious origins of stillbirth

Am J Obstet Gynecol. 2003 Sep;189(3):861-73. doi: 10.1067/s0002-9378(03)00470-8.


Objective: Our objective was to determine the relationship between various types of perinatal infections and stillbirths.

Study design: By use of various textbooks on perinatal infections, multiple MEDLINE searches, and the reference list of all appropriate manuscripts, the appropriate English language literature was reviewed to define the relationship between various perinatal infections and stillbirths.

Results: Infection may cause stillbirth by a number of mechanisms, including direct infection, placental damage, and severe maternal illness. A large variety of organisms have been associated with stillbirth, including many bacteria, viruses, and protozoa. In developed countries, between 10% and 25% of stillbirths may be caused by an infection, whereas in developing countries, which often have much higher stillbirth rates, the contribution of infection is much greater. Ascending bacterial infection, both before and after membrane rupture, with organisms such as Escherichia coli, group B streptococci, and Ureaplasma urealyticum is usually the most common infectious cause of stillbirth. However, in areas where syphilis is very prevalent, up to half of all stillbirths may be caused by this infection alone. Malaria may be an important cause of stillbirth in women infected for the first time in pregnancy. The two most important viral causes of stillbirth are parvovirus and Coxsackie virus, although a number of other viral infections appear to be causal. Toxoplasma gondii, leptospirosis, Listeria monocytogenes, and the organisms that cause leptospirosis, Q fever, and Lyme disease have all been implicated as etiologic for stillbirth.

Conclusion: Because infection-related stillbirth is relatively rare in developed countries, and those that do occur are caused by a wide variety of organisms, reducing this etiologic component of stillbirth much further will be difficult. However, in certain developing countries, the stillbirth rate is so high and the infection-related component so great that achieving a substantial reduction in stillbirth should be possible simply by reducing maternal infections.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Bacterial Infections
  • Female
  • Fetal Death / etiology*
  • Fetal Death / prevention & control
  • Humans
  • Infections*
  • Malaria
  • Pregnancy
  • Spirochaetales Infections
  • Toxoplasmosis, Congenital
  • Virus Diseases