Pediatrician: Deadly Cold Sore Virus Transmission Extremely Rare

DES MOINES, Iowa  --  A West Des Moines newborn has died after being exposed to the cold sore virus.

Her parents say kiss by a visitor infected with the virus led to the rapid decline of their daughter’s health, but a Blank Children's Hospital medical expert says a kiss may not have caused it.

“We were just in shock. We kept asking, 'how did this happen? What happened?' And the doctor said this was just a strain of bad luck. There is no way to tell,” Nicole Sifrit told Channel 13 in an interview last week.

On Tuesday, 18-day-old Mariana died at the Iowa City Hospitals and Clinics.  The baby was born healthy, but the Sifrits claim Mariana was infected by a kiss from someone with the cold sore virus, better known as the herpes simplex virus. The infection ultimately caused her liver and kidneys to fail.

However, doctors say that type of transmission can be extremely rare.

“It’s much less common for a baby to get this infection through a parent or family member who has a cold sore.”

Pediatric infectious disease physician Araman Moodley says about 85% of babies infected by herpes receive it through vaginal birth. The Sifrits say they tested negative for the virus.  Regardless of how it's contracted, it widely goes undetected. Statistics show nearly 50% of Americans carry the herpes simplex virus.

“Many people who have the virus and who have a history of cold sores may actually shed this virus in their mouth and their saliva and not have any symptoms. So you can have a silent infection and have the virus present in your mouth.”

Doctors say parents should not be fearful of kissing or snuggling with their newborn, but urge others to refrain from kissing babies and to always wash their hands when around them. The Sifrit family is asking other parents to learn from their mistake.

“Keep your babies isolated, don’t just let anyone come and visit them, make sure they are constantly washing their hands. Don’t let anyone kiss your baby. Make sure they ask before they pick up your baby and touch them,” says Sifrit.

Doctor Moodley says every year about ten newborns get infected with the virus in Iowa, and about a quarter of those cases turn out to be as severe as baby Mariana’s.