CMV: It’s very common, it causes serious birth defects, and most people have never heard of it

Mention Down syndrome or spina bifida and you’ll get a nod of recognition from most parents. Concern about these birth defects has resulted in routine screening procedures during pregnancy. But cytomegalovirus?

It sounds like a rare and obscure disease, but cytomegalovirus, or CMV for short, is carried silently by the majority of the population. According to CMV Australia,about half of all young adults are carriers; the percentage rises to 85 by age 40. In the vast majority of cases the virus is dormant and there are no symptoms at all. But sometimes, tragically, a perfect storm of circumstances occurs where the infection is passed from a pregnant woman to her unborn child, resulting in a condition called congenital CMV, which is associated with a range of disabilities varying from vision or hearing impairment to cerebral palsy and developmental delay.

About 1-2 in every 1000 babies born in Australia will have disabilities linked with congenital CMV. That’s about the same as the number of babies born with Down syndrome and twice the number born with spina bifida. But a lack of public awareness has meant that most pregnant women don’t know that they could be reducing their risk by being a bit more careful with their hygiene—taking simple steps that could make a lot of difference.

CMV has two modes: active and dormant. A fresh infection is active. CMV may also come out of dormancy at other times—while immunity is low, for example, or during pregnancy. While it’s active it’s easily spread from person to person via bodily fluids—kissing on the lips, sexual contact, sharing eating utensils or toothbrushes, wiping a child’s nose. CMV appears to be active more often in toddlers. Children of this age are still learning about hygiene and usually love to be in close physical contact with their carers and playmates. If they’re regularly in daycare or other environments with a number of similarly aged children, CMV is easily shared among the group. There is no vaccine for CMV. Thus young children pose a high risk to pregnant women. A fresh infection during the first half of pregnancy is the most likely scenario that will result in congenital CMV and its related birth defects.

CMV Australia offers five strategies for pregnant women to reduce their risk of contracting the virus:

  1. Don’t share food, drinks, eating utensils or toothbrushes with young children.
  2. Avoid contact with saliva when kissing a child.
  3. Carefully throw away used nappies and tissues.
  4. Clean toys, countertops and other surfaces that come into contact with children’s urine, mucous or saliva with simple detergent and water.
  5. Wash hands often with soap and water for at least 15 seconds and dry them thoroughly. This should be done after close contact with young children, changing nappies, blowing noses, feeding a young child, and handling children’s toys, dummies/soothers.

Life involves risk. There’s no way to completely avoid all the dangers lurking around us. But when it comes to cytomegalovirus, there are practical ways to reduce those risks.

So instead of watching this virus spread among the unsuspecting, spread the word.

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