Listening to an old TED Talk about world-famous percussionist Evelyn Glennie, I was struck not by her amazing accomplishment as a deaf musician but by the fact that she slowly began to lose her hearing at the age of 2 and was deaf by the age of 12.
“Preventable,” I thought with a sigh.
Not many things cause progressive deafness in an otherwise healthy young person — other than one incredibly preventable and terrifyingly prevalent virus that does: cytomeglovirus (CMV).
CMV? That’s the response I get most often from my patients.
Everyone knows about Zika and how to prevent a Zika infection. Zika to date has infected fewer than 300 people in the United States. through mosquito bites or by their coming into contact with saliva or semen of an infected person.
Everyone knows about fetal alcohol syndrome, the most preventable type of intellectual disability. There are warning labels on every bottle of alcohol and in every bathroom of a facility that serves alcohol. Fetal alcohol syndrome affects 1 in 10,000 infants (.01 percent), and if you add alcohol-related behavioral disorders, that number increases to 1 percent.
CMV infects 2 percent of every pregnancy. Two percent!
More children suffer from long-term neurodevelopmental handicaps as a result of congenital CMV infection than either Down syndrome or fetal alcohol syndrome. It is the most common cause of congenital deafness in the U.S.
And it is a failure of the medical community that patients don’t know about this virus.
What is CMV? It’s a congenital infection much like Zika. And just like Zika, it’s really not harmful to anyone but a fetus. It causes, but is not limited to, small head size, mental disabilities, seizures, and deafness.
Where does a pregnant woman come into contact with CMV? She almost always is infected by a toddler, usually her own child. The virus is spread most commonly by sharing food with a toddler or allowing the toddler to put her fingers in her mother’s mouth. (Or the father can get it from a toddler and spread it with a kiss). It is also found in urine.
Anyone who works or lives with a toddler should take precautions if they or their partner is pregnant or considering becoming pregnant.
These simple things can help reduce the risk:
- Do not share foods, drinks, or utensils with young children;
- Do not kiss young children on or around the mouth; and
- Wash hands carefully after changing diapers and wiping runny noses or drool from young children.
Honestly it’s lack of leadership on our part that we have not spread the word. Please consider this an information vaccination.
CMV infection is preventable, and its effects on our tiniest patients are worth preventing. Join me in shouting it from the rooftops of social media and in the exam rooms.
Kimberly Carter, MD, is an obstetrician-gynecologist in Austin who is serves on the TMA Task Force on Behavioral Health.
Don't miss July’s issue of Texas Medicine magazine, which looks at three congenital infections that are especially problematic in Texas because of their stubborn rates: syphilis, cytomegalovirus (CMV), and HIV.