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Women's health

What is Cytomegalovirus and why do you need to know about it?

Clinically reviewed on 19/05/2022 by Bryony Lathbury

Simplyhealth have been working with the charity CMV Action to help raise awareness of this little-known virus that can sometimes have devastating consequences for pregnant women and their unborn babies. Our donation will help fund resources for midwives to educate expectant mothers about the risks of CMV and offer preventive advice to minimise exposure to the virus.

 

CMV explained 

 

Cytomegalovirus (si-to-MEG-alo-virus), or CMV for short, is a common virus that belongs to the herpes virus family. It can be passed between people through close and prolonged contact with bodily fluids such as saliva and urine.  It is harmless to most healthy children and adults, and pretty much unknown to most people.  Many people come into contact with CMV during childhood and it is thought that 50-80% of adults in the UK have been infected.  As with other herpes viruses, once a person has been infected, CMV is “persistent” - in that it stays in the body for life and can occasionally be reactivated. 

 

Whilst in most cases CMV will cause no, or very mild cold-like symptoms, CMV does pose a risk to pregnant women and their unborn babies, as well as people with low immunity.

 

Research shows that pregnant women most commonly acquire a CMV infection through exposure to the bodily fluids of young children (because young children are very adept at spreading their bodily fluids around!), especially their own.1 If a woman has had a previous CMV infection, it can become reactivated through this exposure.  The CMV infection can then be passed to the woman’s unborn child via the placenta.  This is known as congenital CMV and it can lead to miscarriage, stillbirth or serious birth defects. 

 

It is estimated that 2-3 babies a day, or almost 1,000 babies a year, are affected by the CMV virus - it is the most common infection passed from mother to baby before birth.2 The majority of babies infected with congenital CMV will not have any symptoms at birth and will not suffer any long-term problems. However, CMV can cause disabilities and physical impairments, behavioural and learning difficulties and is the leading cause of non-genetic hearing loss.3

Managing risks of infection


The good news is that pregnant women, and those planning a pregnancy, can effectively manage their risk of catching the virus by adopting some simple hygiene precautions:

 

  • Avoid sharing food, drinks, cutlery, dummies or any objects that have been in children’s mouths.
  • Wash your hands when things get “messy”:  after feeding, wiping faces and noses, changing nappies, and picking up mouthed toys.  The CMV virus is destroyed by soap and water.
  • Avoid kissing children on the mouth or face.  Kiss on the forehead or give them a big hug instead.  Avoid the drool!
Mother hugging child

More about CMV Action

 

CMV Action raises awareness of congenital CMV in the UK.  Run by parents affected by CMV and by professionals with an interest in the virus, CMV Action are uniquely placed to support families affected and to speak about the impact that the virus has. 

 

The charity has two main aims:  to support families faced with a congenital diagnosis or living with CMV and to raise awareness of CMV amongst the general public, and especially amongst maternal health professionals, who can alert women under their care to the dangers of CMV infection in the same way they currently advise about food and animal-borne infections.

 

CMV Action has a wide range of free resources for families and to help health professionals to explain the virus and prevention methods in an easy and practical way available at www.cmvaction.org.uk

 

If you have any concerns about your risk of CMV please contact your midwife or GP. Remember that 24/7 video GP access and counselling services are included with Simplyhealth Plans, so there’s a qualified professional waiting at the end of the phone to offer practical advice and emotional support 24/7, should you need it. 

Sources:
 

1 Cannon MJ, Davis KF (2005). Washing our hands of the congenital cytomegalovirus disease epidemic. BMC Public Health 5(70). https://cmvaction.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2022/04/Midwifery-Digest-2017-Wood.pdf

2&3 Dollard SC, Grosse SD, Ross DS (2007). New estimates of the prevalence of neurological and sensory sequelae and mortality associated with congenital cytomegalovirus infection. Reviews in Medical Virology 17(5):355-63. https://cmvaction.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2022/04/Midwifery-Digest-2017-Wood.pdf

Woman with arms around two friends on a hike

 

Related guide

 

A guide to women's health

Other articles around women's health, including menopause and pelvic health, written with the support of the Lady Garden Foundation.