Kim Armstrong received shocking news when she took her new-born, Austin, to his first well-check visit: Her son had been randomly screened for congenital cytomegalovirus, or CMV, as part of a study, and his test came back positive. "I had no idea what CMV was," says the Friendswood, Texas, mother of two. "But once I learned about it, it was very scary."
CMV is in the same family as the viruses that cause herpes, chicken pox and mononucleosis, and it infects 50 to 80 percent of Americans by the time they're 40. Passed through infected bodily fluids, including saliva and urine, it is most common in young children. As a result, those most at risk include pregnant women who have or work with infants or small children and babies born to women who have a first-time CMV infection during pregnancy. Because the virus usually causes no symptoms, pregnant women generally aren't aware they have it.
The toll CMV takes
Congenital (present at birth) CMV occurs in 1 in 150 babies in the U.S., and approximately 8,000 kids a year suffer permanent disabilities, including hearing or vision loss or mental retardation, as a result. Symptoms are rarely present at birth but may appear months or years later. The good news is most babies born with CMV never develop disabilities.
The bad news is, a new survey shows that while CMV is the most common virus pregnant women transmit to their fetus, fewer than half of all OB-GYNs talk to their patients about how to avoid it. "The list of things we're supposed to talk about during women's first visit could easily take two hours and scare them to death," explains OB-GYN Laura Riley, M.D., director of infectious disease at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. "That's just the reality."
Testing: no. Prevention: yes
Pregnant women are rarely tested for CMV, for two reasons: A positive test doesn't indicate whether a woman had CMV in the past or is experiencing a current infection; and even if the virus is detected, little can be done.
Prevention (see box below) is especially vital since there's no treatment for CMV. But don't fret if you know or suspect you've had it before: "Damage to the fetus results only from an infection during pregnancy," Riley says.
Armstrong wishes she'd known about CMV when she was pregnant with Austin, who is partially deaf. "I would have been more careful around my friends' babies and washed my hands more often," she says.