The acquisition of herpes simplex virus during pregnancy

N Engl J Med. 1997 Aug 21;337(8):509-15. doi: 10.1056/NEJM199708213370801.


Background: The acquisition of genital herpes during pregnancy has been associated with spontaneous abortion, prematurity, and congenital and neonatal herpes. The frequency of seroconversion, maternal symptoms of the disease, and the timing of its greatest effect on the outcome of pregnancy have not been systematically studied.

Methods: We studied 7046 pregnant women whom serologic tests showed to be at risk for herpes simplex virus (HSV) infection. Serum samples obtained at the first prenatal visit, at approximately 16 and 24 weeks, and during labor were tested for antibodies to HSV types 1 and 2 (HSV-1 and HSV-2) by the Western blot assay, and the results were correlated with the occurrence of antenatal genital infections.

Results: Ninety-four of the women became seropositive for HSV; 34 of the 94 women (36 percent) had symptoms consistent with herpes infection. Women who were initially seronegative for both HSV-1 and HSV-2 had an estimated chance of seroconversion for either virus of 3.7 percent; those who were initially seropositive only for HSV-1 had an estimated chance of HSV-2 seroconversion of 1.7 percent; and those who were initially HSV-2-seropositive had an estimated chance of zero for acquiring HSV-1 infection. Among the 60 of the 94 pregnancies for which the time of acquisition of HSV infection was known, 30 percent of the infections occurred in the first trimester, 30 percent in the second, and 40 percent in the third. HSV seroconversion completed by the time of labor was not associated with an increase in neonatal morbidity or with any cases of congenital herpes infection. However, among the infants born to nine women who acquired genital HSV infection shortly before labor, neonatal HSV infection occurred in four infants, of whom one died.

Conclusions: Two percent or more of susceptible women acquire HSV infection during pregnancy. Acquisition of infection with seroconversion completed before labor does not appear to affect the outcome of pregnancy, but infection acquired near the time of labor is associated with neonatal herpes and perinatal morbidity.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Antibodies, Viral / blood*
  • Female
  • Herpes Genitalis* / diagnosis
  • Herpes Genitalis* / epidemiology
  • Herpes Genitalis* / virology
  • Herpes Simplex / mortality
  • Herpesvirus 1, Human / immunology*
  • Herpesvirus 1, Human / isolation & purification
  • Herpesvirus 2, Human / immunology*
  • Herpesvirus 2, Human / isolation & purification
  • Humans
  • Immunoblotting
  • Infant, Newborn
  • Labor, Obstetric
  • Pregnancy
  • Pregnancy Complications, Infectious* / diagnosis
  • Pregnancy Complications, Infectious* / epidemiology
  • Pregnancy Complications, Infectious* / virology
  • Pregnancy Outcome*
  • Prospective Studies
  • Serologic Tests


  • Antibodies, Viral