Virus more common than Zika can cause birth defects, yet most pregnant women are unaware

Feb 6, 2017

Credit Yale Rosen

A virus more common than Zika can cause deafness, blindness, cognitive delays, and even death in babies, but an alarmingly small number of women know about it.  

As The Denver Post reports, Cytomegalovirus or CMV, is the most common nongenetic cause of childhood deafness in the country. Every year, approximately 30,000 babies born in the U.S. are infected with CMV and as many as 8,000 suffer lifetime consequences from the disease, including microcephaly, which is strongly associated with the Zika virus.

According to the National CMV Foundation, as many as 400 infants die from CMV each year.

Even though CMV is much more common than the Zika virus, which received $1.1 billion in funding from Congress, funding for CMV lags behind and numerous studies show that up to 85 percent of expectant mothers have no idea what CMV is and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists does not advise doctors to talk to expectant mothers about CMV — despite the fact that it is an easily spread virus that is present in nearly every elementary school and day care center in the country.

Some medical providers in Colorado are trying to raise awareness about the virus, including Erin Mestas, a neonatal nurse practitioner at Children’s Hospital Colorado.

“There needs to be more education about CMV risk reduction,” Mestas said. “I think childbearing women need to be more educated.”

Most adults have been exposed to CMV at some point in their lifetimes, meaning they have antibodies to fight off a new CMV infection. For women with CMV antibodies, then, being exposed to the virus while pregnant is usually no big deal.

There is no vaccine for CMV so the small subset of women who don’t have the antibodies, if they catch the virus while pregnant, will likely pass the infection onto their unborn child, who is then at risk for the above-mentioned developmental impairments. The earlier in her pregnancy a vulnerable mother catches CMV, the worse the outcome likely is for the child.

Preventing a CMV infection is similar to dodging a cold during flu season because the virus spreads through saliva or urine, so pregnant women should wash their hands frequently – especially after changing diapers – and avoid kissing toddlers on the mouth or sharing food or drinks with them.

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists wrote in a 2015 bulletin that these prevention steps “often are considered impractical or burdensome,” which is why the organization does not recommend doctors talk to expectant mothers about CMV.

The bulletin states that the preventative measures remain unproven as a strategy for reducing congenital CMV infection.

Recent studies, however, have challenged that conclusion.

One such study from A 2015 study found that women who had never been exposed to CMV before were significantly less likely to contract the virus while practicing the prevention methods than if they didn’t.

Megan Wiedel, a Wheat Ridge, Colorado mother whose second daughter is deaf for the rest of her life because of the infection, points out that women can be tested before they get pregnant to determine if they are at risk for a first-time CMV infection, and if they contract the virus while pregnant, there is a drug they can take that may limit the damage it causes. Children born with CMV can also have better outcomes if started on treatment right away.

But for any of that to be effective, it means doctors need to be more proactive in talking about and testing for CMV.

Wiedel now acts as an informal resource to friends, relatives and neighbors with questions about CMV.