It’s a common virus that can have devastating impacts on babies if it’s not caught early, yet most parents have never heard of it.
Each year, about one in every 200 babies will be born with cytomegalovirus, or CMV.
“This is much more prevalent than Zika, absolutely,” Dr. Allison Dobbie, Otolaryngologist, for Children’s Hospital Colorado, said.
Colten Mustain was born May 16, 2015 at 7:30 a.m. His mom, Amber, said her pregnancy and delivery were normal, but what happened after was anything but.
“A few minutes after he was born his blood sugars were super low, so they rushed him to the NICU for blood sugars and then they found that his platelets were low,” she said. “He was having trouble breathing.”
Colten went through dozens of tests.
“For two weeks we just didn’t really know what was going on with him,” Mustain said.
Finally, doctors discovered he had CMV, something his parents had never heard of.
“It’s surprising because they tell you all these other things that can happen to you, but CMV isn’t brought up,” Mustain said.
CMV is a common virus that can affect anyone, but most people who get CMV never even know they have it. It rarely causes problems in healthy children or adults and typically presents like a cold or the flu.
“It can actually be very asymptomatic as well, where moms don’t have any signs of illness,” Dobbie said.
“At Christmastime, my daughter had been sick and then I ended up getting sick and it felt just like the flu,” Mustain said.
Mothers can pass CMV onto their babies in the womb, and doctors say complications are more likely to develop if that transmission occurs during the first or second trimester.
“They can be born with small head size,” Dobbie said. “Additionally, babies can develop seizures shortly after birth.”
Other symptoms include low birth weight, yellow skin and eyes, and a poorly functioning liver.
CMV can also cause hearing loss and developmental delay, and sometimes these signs won’t show up until months or even years later.
“A lot of it is a wait and see, so of course the doctors are telling us the very worst thing that can happen,” Mustain said. “It’s really hard and scary and devastating when you just had this brand new baby and now it’s being told that there could be severe lifelong complications from something you knew nothing about.”
There’s nothing that can be done for the baby until it’s born, but once it is, the clock starts ticking.
“That time period is vey critical, so we really suggest getting tested within that first two to three weeks of life,” Dobbie said.
Right now there are anti-viral medications that can be given to infants that can help minimize the impacts of CMV, but they can’t eliminate it.
Colten was lucky that his CMV was caught early, but he still suffered hearing loss in his left ear.
“We’re kind of seeing now that he’s definitely on the lower spectrum of problems, but it’s still hard sometimes,” Mustain said.
And his parents are aware there’s always a chance more symptoms could develop later.
“He did have small calcifications on his brain, so that was told us that it was just a wait-and-see. It could be nothing, or learning disabilities, they really didn’t ever elaborate on it. So it’s just something that’s kind of in the back of your mind you think about,” Mustain said.
CMV is currently making waves in the ear, nose, and throat world as new research is showing that anti-virals given to CMV-positive infants can impact how severe their hearing loss is and even stop it from progressing in some cases.
“Hearing loss is something that can absolutely affect kid’s ability to perform well in school,” Dobbie said. “Kids with even one-sided hearing loss can have quite a bit higher chance of needing to repeat a grade.”
Right now testing for CMV is not part of the newborn screening process in Colorado, but many in the medical community hope someday it will be.
“It comes down a lot to cost,” Dobbie said. “The testing is readily available now, and so hopefully one day that will be true. Just as we test every child for hearing loss right at birth, we can actually test them for CMV.”
In the meantime, Colten’s parents are just hoping people will at least start talking about it.
“I just think it’s something that needs to be brought up, with all the other things that can happen, it’s just one of those things that needs to be mentioned,” she said.
CMV can cycle through periods of dormancy and activity, but in healthy individuals it usually stays dormant.
When the virus is active, it can be passed onto others through body fluids.
Doctors recommend pregnant women avoid kissing young children on the lips, as they are major carriers, and instead kiss them on the forehead to avoid their tears and saliva.
If there are any concerns that a baby was exposed to CMV while in the womb, a test should be requested at the very first visit to the pediatrician.