Infant Death Due to Infection from Water Birth

By ThinkReliability Staff

A recently-released study in the CDC’s Emerging Infectious Diseases Journal discusses causes of the death of an infant from legionellosis (commonly known as Legionnaires’ disease) apparently due to a contaminated tub used for a home water birth. While the tub had been disinfected since the birth (and so did not test positive for legionnella), it is believed that the source of the infection was the tub the baby was born in.

The investigation into the baby’s death discusses various issues with the home water births along with solutions. According to the study, Findings from this investigation revealed a gap in the standardization and implementation of infection control practices for midwives during home water births. . . recommendations included use of standard written procedures for employees and clients before, during, and after the water birth. These procedural documents were suggested to outline proper timing of tub filling to reduce proliferation of microorganisms, documentation of client awareness of possible risks when deviating from written procedures, and laboratory testing procedures to be followed when birthing tubs are suspected of being contaminated with Legionella or other pathogens.” The specific cause-and-effect relationships that led to the contamination and infant’s death can be viewed in a Cause Map, or visual root cause analysis, by clicking “Download PDF” above.

The birthing tub in this particular case was filled with private well water two days prior to the birth. Upon filling, enzyme-based, non-FDA-approved water purifying drops were added to the water and the water was kept warm and circulated in the tub until the delivery. The tub used was a recreational-grade, jetted tub with internal tubing that is not approved for use as medical equipment and is particularly difficult to disinfect.

There were no procedures provided by the midwifery center that discussed required steps before and during the water birth, though this is not uncommon. The study found that, although most certified nursing midwives supported water birth, only 30% had received training.

Shortly after the infant’s death, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists issued a joint statement saying that water births should be avoided (see our previous blog on this topic). It’s unclear whether or not information regarding the infant’s death in January 2014 was known prior to the statement released in March, 2014, though one of the concerns with water births (along with drowning) was the possibility that the infant could obtain an infection from a water birth.

Over the summer, another infant developed legionellosis from a birthing pool in England, and the National Health Service banned the use of home birthing pools with built-in heaters and recirculation pumps. Internationally, there were no other cases of infants developing legionellosis from water births since the late 1990s.

Though water births or the use of specific types of birthing equipment have not been banned in the US, birthing in a tub is discouraged. The CDC study recommends that procedures and training about cleaning and the disinfection required before and during water births be developed and disseminated through the midwifery community and potential clients. While legionellosis in infants is rare, it is believed that additional cases may be discovered with better surveillance.

Read more: Fritschel E, Sanyal K, Threadgill H, Cervantes D. Fatal legionellosis after water birth, Texas, USA, 2014. Emerg Infect Dis [Internet]. 2015 Jan 7. DOI: 10.3201/eid2101.140846