Rhesus disease 

Introduction 

Rhesus disease occurs when antibodies produced by a pregnant woman destory her baby's red blood cells 

Rhesus disease is a condition where antibodies in a pregnant woman’s blood destroy her baby's blood cells.

The condition is also known as haemolytic disease of the foetus and newborn.

Rhesus disease only happens when the mother has rhesus-negative blood (RhD negative) and the baby in her womb has rhesus-positive blood (RhD positive). The mother must have also been previously sensitised to RhD-positive blood.

Sensitisation happens when a woman with RhD negative blood is exposed to RhD positive blood, usually during a pregnancy with an RhD positive baby. The woman’s body responds to the RhD positive blood by producing antibodies (infection-fighting molecules) that recognise the foreign blood cells and destroy them.

If sensitisation occurs, the next time the woman is exposed to RhD positive blood her body will produce antibodies immediately. If she is pregnant with an RhD-positive baby, the antibodies can cross the placenta, causing rhesus disease in the unborn baby. The antibodies can continue attacking the baby's red blood cells for a few months after birth.

Rhesus disease does not harm the mother, but it can cause the baby to become anaemic and develop jaundice (yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes).

Read more about the causes of rhesus disease and the symptoms of rhesus disease.

Preventing rhesus disease

Rhesus disease is uncommon these days because it can usually be prevented using injections of a medication called anti-D immunoglobulin.

All women are offered blood tests as part of their antenatal screening to determine whether their blood is RhD negative or positive. If the mother is RhD negative, she will be offered injections of anti-D immunoglobulin at certain points in her pregnancy when she may be exposed to the baby’s red blood cells. This anti-D immunoglobulin helps to remove the RhD foetal blood cells before they can cause sensitisation.

If a woman has developed anti-D antibodies in a previous pregnancy (she is already sensitised) then these immunoglobulin injections do not help. The pregnancy will be monitored more closely than usual, as will the baby after delivery.

Read more about preventing rhesus disease and diagnosing rhesus disease.

Treating rhesus disease

If an unborn baby does develop rhesus disease, the treatment will depend on how severe it is. A blood transfusion to the unborn baby may be needed in more severe cases. After delivery, the child is likely to be admitted to a neonatal unit (a hospital unit that specialises in caring for newborn babies). 

Treatment for rhesus disease after delivery can include a light treatment called phototherapy, blood transfusions, and an injection of a solution of antibodies (intravenous immunoglobulin) to prevent red blood cells being destroyed.

If rhesus disease is left untreated, severe cases can lead to stillbirth (when a baby dies in the womb before it is born). In other cases, it could lead to brain damage, learning difficulties, deafness and blindness. However, treatment is usually effective and these problems are uncommon these days.

Read more about treating rhesus disease and the complications of rhesus disease.




Page last reviewed: 01/07/2013

Next review due: 01/07/2015

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The 2 comments posted are personal views. Any information they give has not been checked and may not be accurate.

tossup said on 28 February 2014

I was born in Oxford, September 1942. My two brothers, born in 1939 and 1941 both died at birth due to the rhesus factor. My mother, a nurse herself, realized that someone was desperately wrong and that she was going to lose me as well as my two brothers. Soon after my birth she left the hospital, got on a train and took me straight to Great Ormond Street Hospital; where I was immediately given Rhesus + blood. I was given vast amounts before my body actually started to work on its own.

My mother was told that I was the first baby to survive.

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katiesch said on 30 September 2013

i was an rh factor baby born in 1950. i have huge scars on the inside of my left elbow and on both of my ankles. i was told this is due to the transfusions that were performed immediately after my birth. i was told that a friend of my dad's donated blood for me. i am wondering if i carry any dna from the donor of this blood.

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