In recent months, expectant mothers have heard and read a lot about the dreaded Zika virus. Causing microcephaly and other serious birth defects, this mosquito-borne virus seems like every pregnant woman's nightmare. But when you look at the facts, Zika only has just over 4,000 cases reported in the United States, with only 139 resulting from local infection (not from traveling outside the US). What does this mean for you? The risks are real, but not altogether astronomical.That isn't to say that the effects of Zika aren't happening and very much devastating. But when compared to the likelihood of other common viruses, Zika doesn't seem so scary. How can this be? Let's talk about CMV.
What is CMV?
CMV, or Cytomegalovirus, is an extremely common form of the herpes virus. Just like cold sores or the common cold, this virus could live anywhere from a daycare doorknob to the surface of your baby's toys at home. If you're worried about Zika, consider the risks of CMV: 20,000-40,000 babies are born with congenital CMV each year, and at least 8,000 of those babies will suffer from permanent disabilities as a result. The most common problems resulting from congenital CMV include microcephaly, hearing loss, vision abnormalities, and intellectual disabilities.
For pregnant mothers, symptoms are usually slight to unnoticeable, so very few women even know they have it. Just like other herpes viruses, CMV continues to live in the body after the initial infection, which is why it may reoccur to cause disabilities in babies with congenital CMV months or years after birth. It is the most common congenital viral infection, and the number one non-genetic cause of child deafness.
How do babies get it?In order for congenital CMV (the type that causes disabilities in babies and children) to occur, pregnant mothers must first become infected. The highest risk comes for those in close contact with the saliva or urine of a toddler. Toddlers are literal hotbeds for bacteria and germs, which is why they often already have (for them) harmless CMV infections. In order for a baby to have congenital CMV, they must become infected in utero, or while still in the womb. A mother with a first-time infection of CMV or exposure to a new strain can unknowingly pass the virus through the placenta to her unborn baby. Although many babies infected with CMV show no signs or health problems as a result, others can develop disabilities months or even years later, without parents even being aware of the disease's existence.
What prevention or treatments exist?There is no standard treatment or vaccine to prevent the spread of CMV to pregnant women, which is why prevention behavior is so important. If you are pregnant, here are some surefire ways to protect yourself, according to Dr. Gail Demmler-Harrison, a pediatric infectious disease specialist and expert on CMV:
- Avoid sharing food or utensils with your toddler or any young child
- Make sure your toddler(s) have their own dishes and utensils
- Give kisses on the forehead to avoid saliva contact
- Always wash your hands thoroughly after diaper changes (poopy and wet!)
By following these simple steps, you can greatly minimize your risk of CMV infection while pregnant. Most of them are also basic hygiene tips.
As for expectant mothers who are already infected, certain antiviral medications have been shown to yield favorable results for pregnant women and born babies with congenital CMV. However, the main tool for the world at large is knowledge.
Why haven't I heard of CMV before now?
As mentioned previously, children born with CMV don't always have negative outcomes, and not every pregnant woman who kisses her toddler will contract and pass on the virus to her fetus. The controversy of telling mothers not to kiss their sweet toddlers on the mouth may contribute to the silence about CMV.
Some reports state that less than half of OBGYNs in the US discuss CMV at all with their pregnant patients. So although you might hear plenty about the risks of Zika, eating cold cuts and shoveling kitty litter, most people haven't ever heard of CMV. But having even the slightest ounce of awareness is what can protect you and your unborn child from CMV's potential effects.
Let me get real with you for a moment. I have a toddler of my own, and I can tell you that he doesn't give out kisses on a whim. I have to earn those babies. So if I were pregnant, would I be willing to just survive on forehead kisses alone? It's a hard question to answer, but the beauty of it is that whatever I choose, I would be able to do so with some (or a lot of) knowledge about the potential consequences of my actions. Do I think it would be a piece of cake to not kiss my toddler for nine months? NO. But do I also think it's important to know about the risks, and to make sure other mothers do, too? Absolutely.
If you could do me a favor, give this article a share. If you want to learn more about CMV, you can read up on it to find out all you can, and then make your own decisions from there. That's the best we can do in this day and age--seeking out good information, and then making the choice that's right for you. The purpose of this article wasn't to be alarmist or to freak you out or to make you never kiss your toddler again. The reasoning behind it is simply this: education over alarmism. There are lots of germs out there, and it's easy to get anxious about it. While locking ourselves in a sanitized room isn't realistic, it is good to know more about this very common (and preventable) disease.