Pregnant women warned about potentially devastating virus that harms babies

CMV: A hidden danger for pregnant women

Kate Daly's life was forever altered the day her newborn twins were diagnosed with cytomegalovirus (CMV).

All pregnant women and women trying to conceive should be warned about cytomegalovirus (CMV) and taught how to protect their babies from its potentially devastating effects, Australia’s peak body for obstetricians and gynaecologists said.

For the first time, the Royal Australian College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RANZCOG) have released official recommendations for the prevention of CMV infection.

The herpes-like virus is transmitted through bodily fluids such as saliva, tears, urine and breast milk is typically harmless in healthy people, with 85 per cent of the population contracting CMV at some point in their lifetime.

Pregnant women should be warned about Cytomegalovirus, new guidelines.
Pregnant women should be warned about Cytomegalovirus, new guidelines. Photo: Alamy

But congenital CMV can be debilitating and life-threatening for unborn babies. The virus is the most common cause of congenital infection. Almost 2000 babies in Australia are born with congenital CMV every year.

Most infected babies will be healthy and develop normally, but about 400 will develop physical or intellectual disabilities including deafness, blindness, microcephaly and epilepsy. In the most extreme cases, the virus can cause stillbirth, neonatal death and the severe condition cytomegalic inclusion disease (CID).

Pregnant women with young children are at increased risk of CMV, with toddlers and preschoolers prone to catching and transmitting the virus to their mothers via intimate contact such as kissing on the lips, and sharing food, dummies, and utensils.

Read moreCMV: Why aren't pregnant women being warned about virus risk to babies 

On Saturday RANZCOG published its new recommendations advising that “all pregnant women trying to conceive should be given information about CMV prevention as part of routine antenatal or prepregnancy care”.

Pregnant women can reduce the risk of CMV by avoiding: sharing food, drinks or utensils with children under three years old; putting a child’s dummy in their mouth; and contact with saliva when kissing a child (kissing on the lips).

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RANZCOG also advised women to thoroughly wash their hands with soap and water especially after changing nappies, feeding young children or wiping their noses, and to clean toys, counter-tops and other surfaces.

The recommendations are a long time coming for families affected by CMV, including Kate Daly, founder of the Congenital CMV Association of Australia.

“It’s wonderful news for future families, but it’s bittersweet,” she said.

Kate and Hugh Daly with their six-year-old son Will and their three daughters. Will suffers from cytomegalovirus, or CMV.
Kate and Hugh Daly with their six-year-old son Will and their three daughters. Will suffers from cytomegalovirus, or CMV. Photo: James Brickwood

The virus left Mrs Daly’s son William profoundly deaf, with mild cerebral palsy. He was later diagnosed with severe intellectual disability and autism. William’s twin sister Emmaline developed a learning disability.

“I wish these recommendations existed when I was pregnant with William and Emma,” Mrs Daly said. Her twins are now 8 years old.

Mrs Daly was confident that women would follow the advice about CMV in the same way they adhere to all pregnancy advice, from avoiding soft cheeses, seafood and alcohol, to taking the recommended multivitamins and vaccinations.

The guidelines did not recommend routine blood test screening in pregnancy, but they did specify that doctors could consider screening in women who are at high risk of CMV, such as women caring for young children.