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Prenatal infection rare, but perilous

| Saturday, May 17, 2014, 6:48 p.m.

CHICAGO — It's a common, usually harmless virus. But in a rare, unlucky set of circumstances, it can be devastating for infants whose mothers become infected during pregnancy.

Brain damage, deafness and other birth defects are among potential problems when women inadvertently transmit the virus in the womb. Because those complications are so rare, most people have never heard of CMV — shorthand for cytomegalovirus.

Infectious disease specialists, parents of affected children and, now, some legislators are trying to spread awareness about the virus.

CMV is related to germs that cause genital herpes, cold sores and chicken pox. It spreads by exposure to body fluids from an infected person. Infections usually are silent but can cause sore throats and fatigue.

However, the virus can be serious for people with weakened immune systems, including HIV-infected patients and organ transplant recipients. And it can interfere with prenatal brain growth.

The chances of getting infected while pregnant are small, and the chances of passing along the virus in utero are even smaller. Of about 4 million annual U.S. births, about 30,000 babies — less than 1 percent — are born with a CMV infection. About 5,000 of those babies will have CMV-related permanent problems.

The first law in the nation mandating a CMV awareness campaign took effect in July in Utah. It requires urine or saliva tests in newborns who fail already required hearing tests. Studies suggest early treatment with anti-viral medicine may limit hearing loss and may benefit the child's development, too.

Lawmakers in Illinois and Connecticut introduced similar measures this year.

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