In a nutshell: Cytomegalovirus or CMV (much easier to pronounce) is a nasty sounding but actually fairly common virus that gives you cold-like symptoms.
However, if you get CMV during pregnancy it can be passed on to your baby, which could cause developmental problems such as cerebral palsy, deafness and mobility problems.
The odds of this happening are small: CMV affects1,000 babies each year, and of those, around 200 will have issues like the ones mentioned above.
But it’s a good idea to understand the virus and know how to avoid catching it – mainly through careful hygiene during pregnancy.
What’s the story?
The University of London has launched a trial to raise awareness of CMV, and their work has been picked up by papers like the Evening Standard, under headlines including: ‘Pregnant mothers warned: eat a child’s leftovers and you could make baby deaf.’
OK, so, we know this headline’s a little alarmist – and, as we’ve already mentioned, the chances of your baby being affected by CMV are fairly small – nevertheless, as there are some really simple measures you can take to significantly reduce the risks of getting CMV, we think they’re probably worth doing.
How can I reduce the risk of getting CMV?
The project’s leader, Dr Chrissie Jones, told the Evening Standard: “The most important message is not to come into contact with the saliva of a young child.
“We would discourage women from sharing food. It’s quite common for parents to finish uneaten meals, such as fish fingers. Don’t kiss you child directly on the lips, kiss them on the forehead.”
We should say here – it’s not just children that carry CMV – but, as we know, viruses are spread easily from child to child in school/nursery – simply because children are in such close contact with each other and aren’t quite as hot on hygiene all the time as most adults are, and CMV can only be eradicated with soap and water.
Mums are also advised to make sure they wash their hands thoroughly after nappy changes (CMV can be passed on through all bodily fluids including urine.)
More about Cytomegalovirus (CMV) and the symptoms
CMV belongs to the herpes family that can also cause cold sores or genital herpes. It’s estimated that as many as 50-80% of adult Brits carry the CMV virus because once you’ve had it, it stays in your system.
“Most people who have CMV virus won’t even realise they have it,” says dad and GP Dr Julian Osen. “Symptoms can include a temperature, tiredness and swollen glands, but often CMV is asymptomatic, which means you may not get any symptoms at all,” he says.
What is Congenital CMV and is it harmful to my baby?
When CMV is passed onto your unborn baby during pregnancy and causes problems, this is called congenital CMV. The NHS estimates that in the UK, just 1-2 babies in every 200 will be born with congenital CMV (that’s fewer than 1,000 babies affected each year).
“Just because you get CMV virus during pregnancy, doesn’t mean your baby will,” says Dr Osen.
CMV is usually only dangerous to the baby if it’s the first time the pregnant mother has contracted it, and of those women, the NHS estimates that just one third will pass the infection on to their unborn baby.
“Complications from congenital CMV virus in pregnancy include restricted growth during the pregnancy, low birth weight, jaundice, deafness and possible mental, motor and visual impairment, but these are rare,” says Dr Osen.
Only 10% of unborn babies that become infected with the CMV virus will go on to develop problems. It is estimated that 10 stillbirths occur in England and Wales every year due to CMV infection contracted during the early stages of pregnancy.
What are my chances of getting CMV during pregnancy?
It’s hard to say. If you are one of the 50-80% of adults in the UK who have been infected with CMV at some point, most likely the virus is inactive and should not cause any issues. However, in some cases, it can flare up again when your immune system is weakened (reactivation).
Between 1-4% of women who have never previously been infected with CMV will contract the virus for the first time during pregnancy.
“It turns out [my son] has CMV, a virus which I probably caught in pregnancy and passed on. Approx. half the population are carriers of this virus and it causes no problems in most people, but is very dangerous in unborn or newborn babies,” mum Cast1980 on our forum told us.
“We do not know how much damage having this virus has caused and what it means for the future. We also don’t know how long he was starved of oxygen for and what implications this means for his brain.”
More on preventing CMV
We mentioned right at the top of this piece that CMV is spread through bodily fluids such as saliva and urine – so ideally you’d stay away from people who you know have CMV virus.
But as it can often be symptom-free and we don’t always know we have it, this is easier said than done.
Backing up what the University of London study advises, experts at CMV Action say the best way to reduce your risk of catching it is by following these basic hygiene precautions:
- Avoid sharing cutlery, drinks or food with anyone – no sharing platters at the pub
- Avoid kissing young children under the age of 6 on the mouth or cheek. (Give them a big hug or kiss on the head instead)
- Wash any items that have been contaminated by bodily fluids with soap and water
- Wash your hands with soap and water after coming into contact with any bodily fluids. Wash well for 15-20 seconds.
- Use condoms during sexual intercourse after conception
Be particularly careful to follow these measures if you work with children as your risk of catching CMV will be higher.
NurseCol says, “I’m a paediatric nurse and just found out that a baby I have been nursing over the last two weeks has Cytomegalovirus (CMV) which is apparently really dangerous to pregnant women.
“It is passed through urine etc. so I am washing my hands to the extent that they are sore just to be safe!”