Herpes simplex viruses (HSV) are ubiquitous pathogens which can be transmitted vertically causing significant morbidity and mortality in neonates. Neonatal HSV infection is infrequent with an incidence ranging from 1 in 3500 to 1 in 20 000, depending on the population. Neonatal HSV infection is much more frequent in infants born to mothers experiencing a primary HSV infection with an incidence approaching 50%, while infants born to mothers experiencing recurrent HSV infection have an incidence of less than 3%.
Neonatal infections are clinically categorised according to the extent of the disease. They are: (i) skin, eye and mouth (SEM) infections; (ii) central nervous system infection (encephalitis) — neonatal encephalitis can include SEM infections; and (iii) disseminated infection involving several organs, including the liver, lung, skin and/or adrenals. The central nervous system may also be involved in disseminated infections.
Caesarean section, where the amniotic membranes are intact or have been ruptured for less than 4 hours, is recommended for those women who have clinical evidence of active herpes lesions on the cervix or vulva at the time of labour. This procedure significantly decreases the risk of transmission to the infant.
Diagnosis of neonatal infection requires a very high level of clinical awareness as only a minority of mothers will have a history of genital HSV infection even though they are infected. Careful physical examination and appropriate investigations of the infant should accurately identify the infection in the majority of cases. Treatment is recommended where diagnosis is confirmed or there is a high level of suspicion.
The current recommendation for treatment is aciclovir 20 mg/kg 3 times daily by intravenous infusion. Careful monitoring of hydration and renal function as well as meticulous supportive care of a very sick infant is also required. The newer anti-herpes agents, valaciclovir and famciclovir, offer no advantage over aciclovir and are not recommended for neonatal HSV infection.
Prognosis is dependent upon the extent of disease and the efficacy of treatment, with highest rates of morbidity and mortality in disseminated infections, followed by central nervous system infection and the least in SEM infection. However, SEM infection is associated with poor developmental outcome even in infants who do not have encephalitis. Studies to improve the outcome of SEM infection are in progress.
Neonatal HSV infections, although being relatively uncommon, are associated with significant morbidity and mortality if unrecognised and specific treatment is delayed. Diagnosis relies on a high level of clinical suspicion and appropriate investigation. With early therapy, the prognosis for this infection is considerably improved.