Over half of adults by age 40 have been affected by Cytomegalovirus, or CMV, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Most people who are infected with CMV don’t show any signs or symptoms of illness. However, CMV infection can lead to some pretty serious health problems, especially for newborn infants.

A woman who is infected with CMV can pass the virus to her developing baby during pregnancy, but the risks associated with this common infection are unfortunately not recognized by most pregnant women. Physicians and researchers at the University of Minnesota Medical School are changing that.

“We are talking about this more because we are recognizing how serious this problem really is,” explained Mark R. Schleiss, MD, Professor, Department of Pediatrics, University of Minnesota Medical School and Pediatric Infectious Disease Physician with University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital.

This is not a new disease; CMV infections have existed in humans for thousands of years. However, thanks to researchers here at the University of Minnesota, a deeper understanding of the virus is evolving. Dr. Schleiss predicts that this new knowledge will in turn leads to therapies and interventions that can help children with CMV, as well as preventative strategies for expecting mothers.

With the intention of furthering those intentions and increasing education for patients and families, Schleiss organized a conference for providers from all disciplines, families and researchers. It was presented by the Department of Pediatrics, University of Minnesota Medical School, and the Minnesota Vikings Children’s Fund. UMN experts from departments of neonatology, obstetrics, otolaryngology, oncology, and vaccine development all came together to discuss tools and techniques to increase knowledge and awareness about CMV infection.

The main objectives of the conference held on Friday, June 15, 2018, included discussion of the role of CMV in causing disabilities in newborns; examination of how CMV causes hearing loss in infants and what options are available for treatment and prevention; identification of resources in the community for management and therapies for infants with CMV; and review of current initiatives in newborn screening and maternal screening during pregnancy. Protocols for CMV research at the UMN and nationally, both currently in place and planned for the future (including universal screening of newborn infants for congenital CMV), were also main topics of discussion.

CMV is the most common infectious disease that causes deafness in children, as well as other birth defects, including microcephaly, mental retardation, and developmental disabilities. Not passing the newborn hearing screen at birth is a common presentation of CMV infection at birth. Dr. Schleiss has spearheaded a program to test all newborns who “refer” (do not pass) their newborn hearing screen for congenital CMV infection. Early detection can target infants for treatment, toward the goal of improving their hearing and neurological outcomes.

“Many parents haven’t even heard about CMV,” said Schleiss. “We need to do better; both in Minnesota and nationally.”