Home Our Campaign Medical / Therapeutic Opportunities for Prevention: A Viral Cause of Cerebral Palsy

Opportunities for Prevention: A Viral Cause of Cerebral Palsy

Research now available suggests that an extraordinarily common (and usually fairly harmless) virus that circulates widely in our community is a contributing factor in the number of babies born with cerebral palsy.

That same research tells us that extra care with hygiene can help turn the tide on the number of cases seen each year.

Cerebral palsy is the most common childhood physical disability ­– more common than even Down syndrome – and researchers now say the numbers can potentially be reduced if mothers know about the virus and how to reduce their risk of infection during pregnancy.

In healthy people cytomegalovirus (CMV) infection presents much like the common cold and is spread through contact with saliva, tears, nasal mucous and intimate contact. Peaks of infection occur in children under two years of age, and during adolescence.

50 per cent of people have been infected with CMV by young adulthood, and up to 85 per cent by 40-years of age.

Importantly, CMV can be passed from a mother to her developing baby during pregnancy.

In Australia, almost 2000 babies are born with CMV each year and of these, more than 350 will have long term disabilities like hearing loss, intellectual impairment, epilepsy and/or cerebral palsy.

While the clear message is that there is no need for alarm, experts are encouraging women – especially those with other young children – to adopt some specific hygiene precautions when they are pregnant to reduce their risk of contracting the virus.

Being vigilant about hygiene during pregnancy sounds simple enough, right?

“Some women will be infected with CMV during pregnancy and their babies will be unaffected. In fact, the majority will be fine. However, a proportion of children will have serious issues including hearing loss and cerebral palsy” says Cerebral Palsy Alliance Researcher, Hayley Smithers-Sheedy.

Hayley’s particular area of expertise is the relationship between CMV and cerebral palsy.

She says that expectant mothers often hear advice not to eat soft cheese, to avoid cat litter, and not to drink or smoke as part of a healthy pregnancy, but that it is also important to include things like not sharing spoons with our toddlers.

“These sensible, regular habits are similar to the things we do to avoid catching a cold from a friend or a member of your family. You are being careful to avoid these viruses,” says Hayley.

The research

Hayley recently led research into more than 400 cases of cerebral palsy looking at its relationship with CMV. The research team from The University of Sydney revisited the heel prick blood samples taken from babies at birth.

Normally, less than 1 per cent of samples in the general community will test positive for the virus. However, this research found 9.6 per cent of children with cerebral palsy had CMV when they were born.

These findings highlight the importance of CMV as an important contributing cause of cerebral palsy.

A parent’s story

Jaye Chadwick is the mother of 18-year old Kate. When Kate was born with moderate cerebral palsy, and a moderate intellectual disability in 1999, people just didn’t know much about the impacts of CMV on unborn babies.

An MRI when Kate was six months old showed that CMV had passed to her through the placenta when Jaye was 15 weeks pregnant.

“It’s great they’re making these links through the cerebral palsy register,” Jaye says. “If more information comes out about it then people might change their behaviours,” she said

But her message to pregnant mothers was not to live in fear. “You can be doing all the right things but you can’t live in a bubble. Enjoy your pregnancy,” she said.

Quick facts

The following steps are recommended for pregnant women to reduce their risk of CMV infection and to help protect their unborn baby:

  • Wash hands often with soap and running water for at least 15 seconds and dry them thoroughly. This should be done especially after close contact with young children, changing nappies, blowing noses, feeding a young child, and handling children’s toys, dummies/soothers.
  • Do not share food, drinks, eating utensils or toothbrushes with young children.
  • Avoid contact with saliva when kissing a child.
  • Use simple detergent and water to clean toys, countertops and other surfaces that come into contact with children’s urine, mucous or saliva. *

* Cytomegalovirus (CMV) and pregnancy fact sheet, NSW Government

International guidelines

An international consensus report recently published in renowned UK medical journal, the Lancet, is a significant step towards improving global policy around CMV during pregnancy.

The report, entitled ‘Congenital cytomegalovirus infection in pregnancy and the neonate: consensus recommendations for prevention, diagnosis, and therapy’ was the result of international experts in the fields of pediatrics, obstetrics, virology, epidemiology, and others coming together to discuss practice and policy issues related to the diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of CMV at an Australian conference last year.

A public health campaign

To begin sharing the preventative messages from the new international guidelines, the Cerebral Palsy Alliance, The University of Sydney has joined forces with CMV Australia, to develop a public health campaign.

You can help spread the word about CMV prevention by passing this information on to family and friends, letting them know about the simple strategies for reducing their risk of CMV infection during pregnancy.