CMV and Congenital Disease

As with other human herpesviruses, initial infection by CMV (also known as primary infection) is followed by the establishment of lifelong latent infection, from which periodic reactivation is common. Symptoms are usually absent during primary infection and reactivation, but CMV is shed in various bodily secretions, particularly urine and saliva. CMV excretion can be continuous or intermittent, generally lasting several weeks in adults but often continuing for months or years in young children. CMV infection is widespread, with estimates of CMV seroprevalence in the United States ranging from 40% to 80%. CMV is transmitted person-to-person via close non-sexual contact, sexual activity, breastfeeding, blood transfusions, and organ transplantation. CMV has not been shown to be transmitted via respiratory secretions or aerosolized virus. For the pregnant woman, the most likely source of infection may be contact withthe urine or saliva of young children, especially her own children.

Congenital CMV disease is most likely to occur following a primary infection in the mother. Primary infections occur in 1%-4% of seronegative, pregnant women and lead to fetal infection in 40%-50% of these pregnancies. Maternal CMV reactivation or reinfection with a different CMV strain leads to fetal infection in about 1% of seropositive, pregnant women. Approximately 10% of congenitally infected infants are symptomatic at birth, and of the 90% who are asymptomatic, 10%-15% will develop symptoms over months or even years. Permanent birth defects can result from CMV infection of the fetus during any trimester, but infection during early fetal development is likely to be especially damaging. Since few newborns are screened for CMV, the true impact of congenital CMV infection is underappreciated.

A number of experts have suggested that women be educated about hygienic practices for preventing CMV transmission from young children, and there is little dispute over what the prevention guidelines should entail. This consensus is reflected in current American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists guidelines, which recommend that physicians counsel pregnant women about preventing CMV acquisition through careful attention to hygiene. Nevertheless, hygienic practices do not appear to be widely discussed by healthcare providers and prospective mothers are often unaware of both congenital CMV disease and the potential benefits of hygienic practices. The virtual absence of a prevention message has been due, in part, to the low profile of congenital CMV. Infection is usually asymptomatic in both mother and infant, and when symptoms do occur, they are non-specific, so most CMV infections go undiagnosed. Given the relative invisibility of CMV disease and mixed messages about prevention education, it is not surprising that healthcare providers do not discuss CMV with their patients and that women are unaware of the risks of CMV infection.