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Keeping your baby healthy in pregnancy – how to reduce your risk of CMV infection.

17 August 2017

So you may be asking yourself at this point ‘What on earth is cytomegalovirus (CMV)? ‘

That’s a reasonable question.

In fact this little known virus is the most common virus to be transmitted between mothers and babies in pregnancy. 

CMV is sometimes described as a ‘stealth virus’ because when healthy people are infected there are few symptoms.  Interestingly, by adulthood around half of us will have CMV and we won’t even know it.

It is most commonly transmitted from person to person through contact with saliva or urine.  Infected infants and toddlers are particularly good at passing this virus along to others as they excrete the virus in their saliva and urine for as long as 2 years after they become infected. They generally won’t have any symptoms themselves.  

So why does this virus matter? 

CMV matters because when a pregnant woman is infected she can pass the virus on to her developing baby. This is a problem because CMV can cause damage to the baby’s developing nervous system and brain. 

You may be surprised to hear that this little known virus is in fact a more common cause of long-term disability than other better recognised conditions such as Down syndrome. In Australia we know that more than 1500 babies will be born with CMV infection each year. Of these approximately 350 will have long term disabilities most commonly hearing loss but also epilepsy and intellectual impairment. Research completed through the Cerebral Palsy Alliance and Marie Bashir Institute at The University of Sydney has shown that congenital CMV is also an important contributing cause of cerebral palsy

The good news for pregnant mums is that there are strategies available to reduce their risk of infection. 

Research has shown that women who have contact with young infants are at increased risk of infection, so the hygiene strategies listed (see panel) aim to reduce infant to mother virus transmission. Just like avoiding soft cheese (to avoid listeriosis) or getting someone else to change the cat litter (to assist in avoiding toxoplasmosis), these hygiene precautions are easy to adopt and have been shown to reduce the risk of CMV infection in pregnant women.

Unfortunately we know the vast majority of women are not aware of CMV or the simple strategies available to reduce their risk of infection. Recently published international consensus guidelines have highlighted the importance of providing pregnant women with this information so that they are equipped to reduce their risk of infection. 

Cerebral Palsy Alliance and CMV Australia are both committed to getting this important information out to pregnant women. Please help get the message out by passing this information on to any pregnant women you know and directing them to available factsheets (Prevention Advice 1Prevention Advice 2). 

Hygiene Precautions

for Pregnant Women

Do not share food, drinks, or utensils used by young children

Do not put a child’s dummy/toothbrush in your mouth

Avoid contact with saliva when kissing a child

Thoroughly wash hands with soap and water for 15–20 seconds, especially after changing nappies, feeding a young child, or wiping a young child’s nose or saliva

*Adapted from International Consensus Guidelines