CMV: More common than Zika, but lesser-known

The outbreak of the Zika virus caused countless conversations between doctors and pregnant patients, yet many mothers remain unaware of a similar — yet much more common — virus called cytomegalovirus, or CMV.

One in a hundred babies is born with CMV. While most experience no problems, one in five newborns with CMV develops symptoms such as hearing loss or cerebral palsy.

The newborns become infected by their mothers, and more than half of women have the CMV virus before the age of forty, yet the virus usually causes no symptoms in the mothers.

“It’s the most common infectious disease in the United States that causes birth defects in infants,” said Dr. Mark Schleiss, the director of the Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases and Immunology at the University of Minnesota.

Dr. Schleiss is working on a vaccine, and advocates for increased screening, leading to earlier treatment.

“I think by increasing screening, we can benefit these babies, we can improve the pregnancy outcomes,” Dr. Schleiss said. “And it’s also important to recognize that screening starts a dialogue.”

Leah Henrikson’s newborn was screened when she was born nearly three years ago. The St. Paul mom said she’d never heard of CMV when it was mentioned by her doctor.

“There’s a lot of media attention about Zika, but something that’s been around for a long time is CMV, and it causes similar symptoms and effects in kids,” Henrikson said. “Ask about CMV. Ask what it is. Ask if it makes sense to test.”

Vivian, Henrikson's daughter, received treatment from Dr. Schleiss, including antiviral medication. She has hearing loss in one ear and minor cerebral palsy.

“Her outcome is great, and we think because we caught it early and were able to treat it right away, we think that impacted her outcome,” Henrikson said.

CMV is spread by urine or saliva — often from children to parents.

Some European countries and states require screening for CMV. Minnesota does not.

Treatment can include antiviral medication, physical therapy, occupational therapy, audiology and hearing aids.