What is the Rh Factor, and How Can a RhoGAM Shot Help Rh Incompatibility?
As if it isn't overwhelming enough to have a baby, imagine having your third child, finding out he has a life-threatening condition, and knowing he will be your last baby. This actually happened to my grandma. She and my grandpa had two healthy little girls, and then a long-awaited son was born! Soon after his birth, they discovered that he was Rh positive, and he had to have two complete blood transfusions. At the time, it was a miracle he survived, and my grandparents were lucky he grew up to be healthy and strong. In the 1950s, it was definitely not the norm for a Rh-positive baby born to a Rh-negative mother to survive.
Luckily, only about 15 percent of people are Rh-negative. So it's rare enough that most pregnant mamas don't need to worry about it, but it's also common enough that your doctor will be prepared to take care of you and your baby if you are Rh-negative. And most importantly, there is now a treatment called RhoGAM, or Rh immunoglobulin, that can help keep your baby healthy (more on that in a minute) if you discover you're Rh-negative and your baby is Rh-positive!
So what is the Rh factor? Everyone's blood is either Rh-positive or Rh-negative. If you're Rh-positive, you have the Rh factor, which is a protein found on the surface of your red blood cells. If you (or your baby) are Rh-negative, you do not have the Rh factor. Like almost everything else, the Rh factor is hereditary. If you are Rh-negative, but the daddy is Rh-positive, your baby could be Rh-positive or Rh-negative. If both of you are Rh-negative, your baby will also be Rh-negative.
Since I didn't know very much about Rh factor, Rh incompatibility, or the RhoGAM shot, I asked my sister-in-law, Shakira Nash, for more information. Shakira is a nursing school graduate who works at her local hospital administering hearing screenings to newborn babies. She explained that, "RhoGAM is an immunosuppressive drug that is given to Rh-negative moms who are pregnant with a Rh-positive baby, and it prevents the mom's body from making antibodies that will fight against the baby's blood."
Rh incompatibility occurs when an Rh-negative mother's blood comes into contact with blood from her Rh-positive fetus, causing the mother's body to make antibodies which then attack the Rh factor in your baby's blood!
Since a Rh-negative mother's body won't start creating antibodies until it comes into contact with blood that is Rh-positive, this usually isn't a problem during a first pregnancy, unless you have a complication that causes your blood and baby's blood to mix. It's also possible to become Rh sensitized if you have a miscarriage, an amnio, an ectopic pregnancy, or other bleeding during pregnancy. If you do become Rh sensitized, this can lead to anemia, jaundice, or a condition called hemolytic anemia. Hemolytic anemia occurs when the Rh antibodies from the mother attack and destroy the baby's red blood cells. Because the red blood cells carry oxygen to all parts of your baby's body, hemolytic anemia can quickly cause serious illness or even be fatal.
So how can you find out if you and your baby are at risk? Jacquelinne Altom, creative director at The Baby Cubby and mother of four girls, said, "With my first child, it was identified early on that I am Rh-negative and that I would need to get a shot of RhoGam during the 28th week of each of my pregnancies. The process is very simple and I have been assured time and time again that the condition is nothing to stress about as it is easily identified. The RhoGAM shot is very effective in eliminating any complications that can occur in mothers with Rh incompatibility."
As Altom says, you will receive a blood test early in your pregnancy that determines if you are Rh-negative. If you are Rh-negative, your doctor will request an antibody screen at 26-28 weeks. This test will show if you have developed antibodies to Rh-positive blood, which will tell you if your baby's blood is Rh-positive. If it is, you will be given the RhoGAM shot.
Nash also explained that, after birth, "your baby will also get a Coombs test which will determine if he or she is Rh-positive or Rh-negative. If the baby is Rh-negative, the mother does not need to receive a second shot. But if the baby is Rh-positive, the mother will receive a second shot."
If you are Rh-negative, then "this happens with every pregnancy...to protect the mom and the baby," Nash said. If you are Rh-negative and your baby is Rh-positive, you will also be given an additional RhoGAM shot within 72 hours after your baby's birth to prevent your body from creating antibodies that could possibly harm future babies.
What's it like to receive a RhoGAM shot? Since I've never received one, I asked Altom to tell me a little more. She said, "The shot is created by drawing blood, often times the same day you complete your glucose test, that is then taken to a lab to create a solution that will be injected in your hip within 72 hours. The shot itself is definitely more painful than your average shot and is distributed through a large needle. Soreness in your hip is common for several days after receiving the shot. I found rubbing the tender area often effective in helping decrease soreness and dispersing the solution into my bloodstream."
She also mentioned that she has had to go to the hospital for the lab work and the injection, but since it is usually done the same week as the glucose test, she's been able to do both at the same time.
Whew! I feel like that's a lot of information, but I'm also so glad that the RhoGAM shot is available for women with Rh-negative blood who are pregnant with babies who have Rh-positive blood! Because of this, so many babies' lives can be saved! And mamas with Rh-negative blood can have as many babies as they want! I definitely call that a win-win!
Feature Picture Credit: @hayleynbradley