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Is there a risk to the health of a baby when a woman has cytomegalovirus (CMV)?

Filed under: Birth Injuries

Cytomegalovirus or CMV infection is a common viral infection and member of the herpes-virus family.  In most people, CMV does not cause any symptoms, but once you are infected with CMV you are carrier for life and can go through active/dormant cycles.  It is only if you are pregnant or have a compromised immune system that CMV can cause problems.  While there is no cure for CMV, drugs can be used to help treat people with weak immune systems or newborns.

Infection in the womb

CMV is a concern for pregnant women because they can pass the virus on to their babies, who are susceptible to illness and disease at the beginning of their lives.  Congenital CMV is when the fetus is infected in the womb.  Perinatal CMV is when a newborn is infected shortly after birth (usually through breastfeeding).  Oftentimes, when a baby is infected by CMV before they are born (congenital CMV), they appear healthy at first, but then some develop symptoms later (sometimes months or years later).

Impact on child

In the United States, about 30-50% of women who are of childbearing age have never been infected with CMV, but about 1-4% of these women have their first CMV infection when pregnant.  Approximately one in every 150 children born, are born with congenital CMV.  Roughly 80% of children born with congenital CMV do not have any symptoms or problems, but still over 5,000 children born in the U.S. suffer permanent problems from congenital CMV.

Preventing CMV

Pregnant women usually contract CMV from either sexual contact or from contact with the urine of young children who have a CMV infection.  Because most people who have CMV do not have symptoms, it is important that doctors discuss CMV with expecting mothers so that they can limit potential exposure to the virus.  These prevention steps include washing hands after changing diapers, cleaning up after your child, handling toys, and sharing food or utensils with young children.  Education is the first step in fighting congenital CMV.  In one survey reported on the CDC website, only 22% of women in the United States had even heard of CMV.  This is compared to the 97% who had heard of Down syndrome, even though CMV causes more long-term problems and deaths than Down syndrome, neural tube defects, or fetal alcohol syndrome.

Cytomegalovirus is spread through bodily fluids including blood, urine, saliva, semen, and breast milk. Common symptoms of CMV infection include:

  • Fever
  • Fatigue
  • Enlarged lymph nodes
  • Loss of appetite
  • Rash
  • Sore throat
  • Generalized discomfort

A mother can spread CMV to her baby through the placenta or through breast milk.  Symptoms of congenital CMV in newborns include:

  • Jaundice (yellow skin and eyes)
  • Small birth size or low birth weight
  • Pneumonia
  • Seizures
  • Rash
  • Enlarged spleen or liver

Maternal infections such as CMV infection can cause birth defects.  Newborns suffering from CMV risk:

  • Hearing loss
  • Vision problems
  • ADD/ADHD
  • Lack of coordination
  • Mental disability
  • Small head size
  • Seizures
  • Death

Evaluating birth injury cases involving CMV

Doctor’s should check pregnant women for CMV so they prepared to respond to complications after birth.  CMV can infect almost anyone, so it is important that all expecting mothers be screened.  In addition, after the child is born, doctors should be on the lookout for hearing loss, which can be a late to develop symptom of congenital CMV.  If your doctor suspects that your newborn is suffering from CMV, timely treatment of the virus is necessary in order to prevent dangerous complications.  Your baby does not have the same immune defenses as a healthy adult to fight the virus.

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