Little-known virus targets unborn
Causes retardation, other birth defects
March 10, 1996
Web posted at: 7:15 a.m. EST
From Correspondent Rhonda Rowland
ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- Fifteen-year-old Melissa Brown has the mental age of a 2- or 3-year-old. She is deaf, has difficulty seeing, and relies on caretakers for all her needs.
Melissa's handicap wasn't caused by the more common Down Syndrome, but by a little-known virus that has become a significant cause of mental retardation, hearing loss, and vision impairment.
Melissa was born with cytomegalovirus, or CMV, which she contracted while in the womb. At some point in her pregnancy, Nelda Brown picked up the virus, which is spread through contact with body secretions, and passed it to her daughter.
"She didn't walk until she was 5," Nelda Brown says. "She can't talk. No. And that's probably the one thing that I think about the most, you know ... even have dreams about it."
If a pregnant woman becomes infected by the virus, there's a good chance she'll pass it to her unborn child, says Dr. William Gruber of Vanderbilt University Medical Center.
There's a Machiavellian streak to CMV: it poses no major harm to the mother -- or, for that matter, any healthy adult or child -- but it can be devastating to an unborn child. CMV can also attack people with impaired immune systems, such as HIV-infected patients.
Not all babies born with CMV suffer from severe health problems; some emerge unscathed. But during pregnancy, there's no way to predict the degree of harm.
Child-care centers: hotbeds for virus
Some 20 to 80 percent of children who pick up the virus do so at child-care centers. They can then spread the virus to their mothers, Gruber says.
An infected man can also pass the virus to his partner.
If a woman is exposed to the virus before pregnancy, doctors say, there's little risk of the fetus being infected. But between 1 and 3 percent of pregnant women become infected with CMV for the first time during their pregnancies, according to a 1995 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Efforts are under way to develop a CMV vaccine for adults, but experts say it's at least five years away. Until then, all a concerned parent can do is ask their doctor about a CMV blood test.
Some common-sense practices, such as washing hands after changing diapers, can prevent CMV from spreading.
Realizing that awareness is key, the CDC plans to launch an education campaign on CMV this spring.
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