In recent years, celebs like January Jones and Kim Kardashian have been raving about the benefits of ingesting their own placentas post-birth. But can eating your placenta make your baby sick? It’s possible. Last fall, one woman’s baby became ill with group B strep after she took placental capsules after birth.
Late last month, paediatric infectious disease specialist Genevieve Buser and her colleagues at Providence St. Vincent Medical Center in Oregon published an account of the baby’s illness in the Center of Disease Control and Prevention’s weekly Morbidity and Mortality report.
Group B Streptococcus is a strain of bacteria many women carry in their intestines, vaginas and rectums that is typically harmless, explains Buser. But when a baby passes through the birth canal and is exposed to this bacteria, it can make them seriously ill because their immune system is immature. The complications are potentially serious and can include sepsis (a blood infection), pneumonia and meningitis. Women are typically tested for group B strep (GBS) at 37 weeks and, if they’re found to be positive, they’re given antibiotics during delivery to reduce the chance of passing it on to their baby.
In this case, the mother tested negative at 37 weeks, but the baby became ill shortly after birth and was treated for GBS. This is fairly normal—the status of the bacteria can change between 37 weeks and when the baby is born—but what had the doctors scratching their heads was that, after being treated and released from the hospital, the baby got sick again, developing irritability and a fever.
“It’s not a common occurrence to have an early infection and then a second infection,” explains Buser. Doctors did a number of different tests but couldn’t figure out why the baby was still being exposed to GBS. Then they realized the mom had done placenta encapsulation—a practice that some people tout as a way for new moms to boost energy, improve milk supply and keep postpartum depression at bay, though there is no scientific evidence to support these claims.
In this case, the placenta, which also passes through the birth canal, was exposed to GBS. Buser had the placental capsules tested and, sure enough, they contained a strain of GBS identical to the one infecting the infant. While consuming a placenta with GBS wouldn’t typically be a concern for the mother, whose immune system can handle the bacteria, it can significantly increase the colonization of GBS in her gut and on her skin, making it more likely for her baby to be exposed to it.
While Buser can’t say definitively that the placenta pills caused the infection, she says it should raise alarm bells that you can culture GBS from placenta capsules. She also points out that there aren’t any standards for processing placenta for consumption. “You’re ingesting a tissue that comes from a living being. It’s a food safety issue.” In this case the placenta was likely not heated to the point where the bacteria could be killed.
Many people insist it’s natural—many animals do it—so what’s the harm? The truth is, we don’t know yet, says Buser. “We don’t have the research at this moment to know what the potential is for transmission by human placental tissue of both viral and bacterial pathogens to both the people who consume them and the person processing it.”
She wants her report to open up the conversation about this little-researched practice. “We hope women will bring it up with their doctor if they are planning to eat their placenta, so they can talk about risks.”
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