Though many of us may not be familiar with cytomegalovirus (or even have heard of it), the congenital disease is actually responsible for more developmental disabilities in this country than other newborn diseases. The CDC urges women and expectant mothers to protect themselves in order to protect their unborn children.
The virus can live in our bodies for our entire lives, though it usually doesn’t cause problems. However, the virus can be shed in the saliva and urine of younger children, and it’s contact with these bodily fluids that can infect a pregnant woman and pose a risk to her newborn.
What exactly is cytomegalovirus (CMV)? It’s a virus that can affect people of all ages and both sexes – and because it’s a virus, it can live in our bodies for our entire lives, though it usually doesn’t cause problems. However, the virus can be shed in the saliva and urine of younger children, and it’s contact with these bodily fluids that can infect a pregnant woman and pose a risk to her newborn. According to the CDC, children are likely to shed the virus in these bodily fluids throughout their first three or four years.
Once a pregnant woman is infected with CMV, there’s a 30% chance that she will pass it on to her unborn baby. (Interestingly, if she is infected before she becomes pregnant, her odds of passing it onto her baby are only about 1 in 100.) While 1 in 250 babies is born with the disease, luckily, only about 10% of these newborns will develop symptoms because of it. These can include:
- Small body size
- Problems with the liver, spleen, and/or lungs
- Jaundice (yellow skin and eyes)
- Purple-colored skin patches
- Hearing loss
- Vision loss
- Intellectual disability
- Lack of coordination
- In rare cases, death
There are blood tests to screen a pregnant woman for CMV, but it is not possible to determine whether or not she will pass it on to her child. There are some treatments available to reduce the likelihood of hearing loss and other developmental problems, but because of their side effects, doctors are cautious about prescribing it to newborns and typically do so in only the more severe circumstances.
The CDC recommends that pregnant women practice good hygiene, particularly if they have young children in the house. This includes not sharing foods or cups with the child, washing or sanitizing hands after changing diapers or wiping the child’s mouth, and cleaning countertops and other surfaces that might come into contact with a child’s saliva. For more information on CMV, see the CDC, http://www.cdc.gov/Features/Cytomegalovirus/ or the Nemours website, http://kidshealth.org/parent/infections/bacterial_viral/cytomegalovirus.html.