Parents around Australia are hoping to raise awareness about a rarely discussed but common virus that causes more birth defects than any other viral infection in infants.
Shanie James’ son Knox was diagnosed with profound hearing loss at just eight-days old but was baffled as she had no family history of deafness.
“It makes me feel sick just thinking about it, but the list of things that can come from CMV like cerebral palsy, the hearing loss which he’s got … I still don’t know what’s going to come from this,” Ms James said.
In healthy people, CMV infection causes a minor flu-like illness.
But in pregnant women, it can be transmitted to their unborn child and cause a range of birth defects, including deafness.
Virologist Professor William Rawlinson from UNSW says one baby is born with a CMV-related disability every day.
It’s estimated around half of adults carry the virus – and young children can be spreaders.
“It’s typically through acquisition from young children, often their own toddler who gets it from childcare … perfectly healthy, might have a sniffle, might have a bit of a fever … but really gets better in a day or two,” Professor Rawlinson said.
Ms James, already a mum of two boys before Knox came along, was also working in childcare during her pregnancy.
She and her husband – like most parents – had no idea about danger posed by CMV.
“If I knew about it maybe I wouldn’t have kept changing nappies at work or maybe I wouldn’t have shared my children’s drink bottles or kissed them on the lips for the nine months that I was pregnant,” she said.
Do not put a young child’s dummy in your mouth and always wash hands after nappy changes.
At the moment there is no pre-delivery screening program for CMV or vaccine to prevent the virus, but medical researchers are working on both.
“I think in the future it’s very likely that we’ll be considering screening pregnant women,” Professor Rawlinson said.
“I hope in sharing this, women can make that decision to try and prevent it from happening.”