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Idaho bill calls for education about common virus that can cause birth defects

UPDATED: Mon., Feb. 27, 2017

BOISE – A common virus that can cause severe birth defects if pregnant women are exposed to it is the target of legislation that cleared the Idaho Senate on Monday. The bill calls for the state Department of Health and Welfare to distribute information to health care providers, day care centers and others so women can take steps to avoid infection.

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, according to the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, causing permanent disabilities including hearing and vision loss, developmental and intellectual disabilities, cerebral palsy, small head size, seizures and death.

Jessica Rachels, of Sandpoint, is among those who brought the issue to lawmakers. She told senators at a hearing last week that 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.

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 cost to the state of developing and distributing the educational materials is estimated at $5,000. Rachels and other members of the Idaho CMV Advocacy Project, a grassroots group, hope additional steps will follow in subsequent years, including more education and possible screening.

The bill, SB 1060, passed the Senate on Monday on a 31-3 vote, with no debate, and now moves to the House. The three senators who voted against it were Sens. Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d’Alene; Dan Foreman, R-Moscow; and Jeff Siddoway, R-Terreton.

The CMV virus is spread through direct contact of bodily fluids including saliva and mucus. Precautions pregnant women can take include hand-washing, particularly when coming into contact with saliva or mucus or after diaper-changing; avoiding sharing food or drink; and not kissing a child on the mouth.

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.

Sen. Lee Heider, R-Twin Falls, the House Health and Welfare chairman and the bill’s lead sponsor, told the Senate, “Most people have never heard of CMV or ways to minimize the risk.”

The bipartisan bill is co-sponsored by Rep. Paulette Jordan, D-Plummer.

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