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Growth Curve

The inexact science of raising kids

Laura Sanders

Growth Curve

Growth Curve

Newborn baby’s infection offers a cautionary tale about placenta pills

placenta pills

BUYER BEWARE One woman’s placenta pills were found to be contaminated with Group B Streptococcus, bacteria that may have caused a dangerous infection in her newborn.

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When I was pregnant, I spent a lot of time searching for good information about how to keep both my baby and myself healthy after birth. Googling “placenta” and “eat,” I got a list of stories that reached nearly opposite conclusions about the practice.

Some say eating the organ will replenish mom’s nutrients, increase breast milk production and even stave off postpartum depression. Others point out that there are no studies that report these benefits, and placenta eating comes with risks. Scientists and doctors still have a lot of unanswered questions about the safety of the practice. 

Here’s one story new mothers considering eating their placenta might want to pay extra attention to: Oregon doctors suspect that contaminated placenta pills may have caused a dangerous infection in a newborn.

Just after birth, this newborn had trouble breathing. Tests revealed a blood infection with Group B Streptococcus, or GBS. These bacteria are found in about a quarter of healthy women’s nether regions and can pose a danger to newborns. The baby probably picked up a GBS infection while passing through the birth canal.

After a round of ampicillin, the baby went home healthy. But five days later, the baby was in trouble again. Doctors at a second hospital found more GBS in the blood. After another round of antibiotics, two types this time, the baby was again sent home.

Doctors at the second hospital learned that three days after the baby had been born, the mother had begun eating six placenta capsules daily. She had hired a company to clean, slice and dehydrate her placenta before grinding it up and putting it into pills. Lab tests found the exact same strain of GBS that had infected the baby in the placenta pills. Genevieve Buser and colleagues published the case details June 30 in the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

Buser, a pediatric infectious disease physician at Providence Health System in Portland, Ore., says the situation represents the first time researchers have turned up harmful bacteria in encapsulated placenta. “But then, I don’t think that anyone has looked.”  

The mother’s breast milk tested negative for GBS. GBS can live in both men and women, mainly in the digestive tract, anus, vagina and, occasionally, skin. The placenta pills could have been dosing the mother regularly with the bacteria, boosting bacterial loads on her skin and in her digestive tract. Through touching, those bacteria could have been transferred to the baby.

The fact that the same strain of bacteria was found in the pills and in the baby’s blood led the researchers to suspect that the pills — and the mother — were a likely source of the infection. Still, Buser cautions that the bacteria transfer from pills to mom to baby “can’t be proven in one case study.”

Other sources of infection exist: The mother could have been colonized in a different way, the bacteria could have come from another person, and the placenta pills could have been contaminated after they were made. “This case report raises more questions than it answers,” Buser says. “But that is good and what science and medicine are all about.”

The baby probably picked up the first GBS infection during birth. With all the excitement of a new baby, it’s easy to forget that the placenta also passed through the same birth canal, picking up the same bacteria that live there. And anyway, placentas aren’t sterile. They’re actually home to swarms of various microbes.

Bottom line, Buser says: “This is a human tissue that is not sterilized.” She points out that dehydrating meat, including placenta, isn’t enough to kill bacteria that can make people sick, including forms of E. coli and Salmonella. A snack texturally similar to placenta, dried deer jerky, sickened people in Oregon in 1995 with E. coli O157. In later lab tests, 10 hours of drying failed to kill that bacteria.

Placenta pills (and other placenta recipes) aren’t regulated, which means there’s no way to tell if the product is safe. Nor is there a foolproof way to spot potentially harmful infections in mothers. In this case, the mother tested negative for GBS at 37 weeks of her pregnancy. That was either a bad test or she acquired the infection after it. There were no signs that she — and ultimately, her placenta — was colonized by bacteria that may have been harmful to her baby.

In their report, Buser and her colleagues don’t mince words: “The placenta encapsulation process does not per se eradicate infectious pathogens; thus, placenta capsule ingestion should be avoided.” If a mother still wants to eat her placenta, she ought to tell her care providers, Buser says. That way, they’ll be aware of the possible risks.

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