15 August 2016
No it’s not rubella or toxoplasmosis or even Zika virus. It is a virus so common half the population have been infected by adulthood and more than three quarters of people by the age of 40. But if you’ve had it, you probably didn’t even know.
The virus is CMV or cytomegalovirus and it is the most common infection causing serious disease present at birth (congenital infection).
Professor Bill Rawlinson AM, Senior Medical Virologist at University of New South Wales and Menzies Scholar in Medicine, is leading research into this little understood virus. He works alongside Kate Daly, the mother of twins who contracted CMV, who founded the CMV Association of Australia to raise awareness particularly in women who are pregnant or considering having children.
Kate’s own story has been widely documented, with her son failing a hearing test at three weeks as the first sign something was wrong. At age five he is profoundly deaf with mild cerebral palsy and a moderate global developmental delay. His twin sister, Emmaline, became affected later in life.
Kate has been motivated by her own incredibly challenging experience to help other families avoid the virus and its resultant damage to newborn babies.
The virus is indiscriminate and can lead to cerebral palsy, blindness, deafness, intellectual disability, global developmental delays, microcephaly, miscarriage, and even death of the baby in utero (miscarriage or stillbirth).
Kate says there are simple strategies which could help reduce the rates of infection in pregnant women by half and her message is be diligent, particularly if you already have young children or have any interaction with those hotspots for viruses; child care centres or pre-schools.
Part of the campaign is a social media effort to raise awareness with #StopCMV written on people’s hands and shared online with the hashtag #StopCMV. The campaign visually links the disease with avoiding contact with children’s saliva and handwashing during pregnancy, which is really the most basic first-line defence to limit the spread of the virus.
The basic precautions for those planning a baby or already pregnant are:
- Don’t kiss toddlers on the mouth
- Don’t share food utensils
- Don’t put a used dummy in your mouth
- Throw tissues out straight away if you wipe a toddler’s nose
- Wash your hands often.
If you want to know more, visit www.cmv.org.au and www.virologyresearch.unsw.edu.au
The latest research by Professor Rawlinson and his team has identified the pathway the virus uses to move across the placenta to infect the foetus. By blocking this pathway with new antivirals, they believe they can stop the virus infecting the baby.
Professor Rawlinson says we need more research to inform the problem, reduce the impacts, and develop new treatments and vaccines – this is the big opportunity over the next 5-10 years. “We are doing something really good now to provide targets to stop infection, and reduce illness in these infants.”
The big ethical and technical challenge is how to involve the people most affected in research to find out how best to treat this problem. “We know the virus gets across the placenta, but it is very hard to get approval to do clinical trials with pregnant women”.
Kate Daly, the Congenital CMV Association of Australia and the research team at University of New South Wales and NSW Health Pathology are working together to provide interventions now to reduce the infection, whilst research is ongoing. “If you know about the disease when you are pregnant you can reduce your risk by half, which is a simple intervention mothers can do now,” Professor Rawlinson said.
Do your part and share this story with family and friends or simply take a picture with the words #StopCMV on your hand and share it on your Facebook page. As Kate and Professor Rawlinson agree “It’s all about getting the message out to reduce the spread of the virus”.