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Little-known virus causing birth defects in thousands of Texas babies

A little-known virus is causing birth defects in thousands of Texas newborns every year and the only way to avoid it to practice strict hygiene. (CBS Austin)

TEXAS (KEYE) -- A little-known virus is causing birth defects in thousands of Texas newborns every year and the only way to avoid it to practice strict hygiene.

"It was horrifying. It was just... it was devastating," recalls Jenny Bailey. Bailey was seven months pregnant in 1990 when she heard about cytomegalovirus (CMV) for the first time.

"While she was still in my womb we were told the grim prognosis," Bailey says.

A 1993 article from Texas Children's Hospital documents her daughter Caroline's story. Caroline lost her hearing because of CMV. Early intervention and rigorous treatment stopped it from getting worse. "Which saved her life, and saved her brain and her eyesight and her ability to move on her own," she says.

Doctor Kimberly Carter MD, an OB-GYN at Seton and assistant professor at The University of Texas at Austin Dell Medical School says CMV is the number one cause of deafness in newborns. Some babies born with the virus grow progressively deaf as they get older.

"It causes more mental retardation than Down Syndrome... more mental retardation than fetal alcohol syndrome," Carter says. She estimates about 3,000-4,000 Texas babies are born with CMV every year but most families never learn about the virus until it's too late.

"Cytomegalovirus has caused more microcephaly than zika has caused," she explains.

Pregnant women typically get CMV from toddler saliva -- usually a child living in their own home.

"It's not harmful to a toddler. It's not harmful to an adult. It's harmful to a fetus," Carter says.

Doctors say the only way to prevent it is to practice strict hygiene before and during pregnancy. Expecting mothers and their partners should:

  • Avoid sharing food, utensils and beverages with toddlers.
  • Kiss toddlers on the head instead of the mouth.
  • Wash hands with soap and water after diaper changes.

"These are good, solid tips whether it's to prevent this virus or another virus," Carter adds.

Three decades later Bailey is frustrated to see the virus just as prevalent today.

"Why are mothers still not being told how to prevent it?" she asks.

Once believed to be too difficult to prevent, Dr. Carter and the Texas Medical Association hope to change the attitude about CMV so that more babies have a better chance at a healthy life.

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