Bipartisan legislation backed by parents whose children suffered severe disabilities after being exposed to a common virus, CMV, in utero is headed for the full Senate. “Education will provide expectant mothers with information to help them significantly decrease the chances of their unborn children contracting the virus,” Jessica Rachels of Sandpoint told the Senate Health and Welfare Committee on Monday.
Rachels said she believes she contracted the virus while working in a child-care center while she was pregnant; her doctor knew her occupation, but didn’t warn her of simple measures she could take to prevent transmission, including hand-washing, particularly when coming into contact with saliva or mucus, avoiding sharing food or drink, and not kissing a baby on the mouth. The virus is spread through direct contact of bodily fluids including saliva and mucus.
Rachels and other members of the Idaho CMV Advocacy Project, a grassroots group, are pushing for SB 1060 to require the state Department of Health and Welfare to distribute educational information about the virus to health care providers, day care centers and others, so it will become more widely known.
Rachels’ 11-year-old daughter, Natalie, suffers from cerebral palsy, hearing loss, seizures and more as a result of the virus; she has had 10 major surgeries. “It’s too late for Natalie, but it’s not too late for our future children of Idaho,” Rachels told the senators. “Please support this bill and help new mothers be informed to provide a healthy start to all newborns. Say no more to leaving women in the dark regarding this horrible virus.”
The virus, cytomegalovirus or CMV, is a common virus of the herpes family that infects people of all ages, and typically causes only mild, cold-like symptoms or no symptoms. But it can be devastating to fetuses, causing permanent disabilities including hearing and vision loss, developmental and intellectual disabilities, small head size, seizures and death. According to the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, over half of U.S. adults have been infected with CMV by age 40, and nearly one in three children age 5 have been exposed to it; once in a person’s body, the virus stays there for life and can reactivate. The virus is dangerous to people with weakened immune systems, and most dangerous in congenital CMV infections that occur prior to birth.
Under SB 1060, the Department of Health and Welfare would spend $5,000 next year to develop and distribute educational materials. Advocates and the department hope additional steps will follow in subsequent years, including more education and possible screening.
Hearing loss is the primary symptom of CMV at birth, but other complications soon develop. An estimated 40 percent of women who become infected with the virus during pregnancy will pass the infection to their unborn child.
Senate Health and Welfare Chairman Lee Heider, R-Twin Falls, is co-sponsoring the bill with Rep. Paulette Jordan, D-Plummer. Heider told Rachels and the other advocates of the bill, “We certainly appreciate you bringing this issue to our attention. … We do take this seriously, and we appreciate and we empathize with you all.”