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Bill would require screening for virus that can cause serious health problems in babies

Cytomegalovirus is the most common virus in the U.S. but few women know it can cause permanent health problems

AUGUSTA, Maine — A bill that would mandate newborn screenings for a common virus is making its way through the Maine Legislature. 

If passed, every baby born in the state would be tested for cytomegalovirus, or CMV, after two failed hearing tests. While most adults infected with CMV show little or no symptoms, some babies exposed in the womb can suffer from hearing loss and developmental delays. The bill would also require education about CMV to be available to all pregnant mothers and women of childbearing age. 

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, CMV affects one in 200 newborns every year, and about 20% will develop serious health problems. It's a common cold-like virus that the CDC said half of all adults will get by the age of 40. 

But if a woman gets it while pregnant, her baby could be at risk for hearing loss, seizures, and developmental delays. Experts said the virus often spreads via saliva and urine. For CMV prevention and health pregnancy information, click here.

While Laura Sweet's 7-year-old daughter Jane is thriving at school, she still faces hurdles every day.

"She doesn't have access to captions on remote school work, and it [has] been challenging for her to hear all of the things she needs for class," Sweet said.

Jane was born with CMV, leaving her with hearing loss and mild delays. Sweet's other son was in full-time daycare when Sweet was pregnant with her daughter. While she had been advised to refrain from alcohol and certain foods, she didn't know about CMV until her doctor informed her about it.

"We weren't told what preventive measures we could take for CMV. Without that knowledge, there is nothing we can do," Sweet said. 

Jane failed her newborn hearing screening, but it took nearly a year to get a correct diagnosis, missing a window to get early anti-viral treatment which could have improved her symptoms. Shortly after her first birthday, the little girl was finally fitted with cochlear implants.  

"If we had a chance to get her diagnosis at birth, that would have led [us in] a much more straightforward direction," Sweet said.

Sweet was among a handful of parents testifying in favor of  LD 1747. If passed, it would require a CMV screening for all newborns in Maine who fail two hearing tests. 

Dr. Stephen Meister is a developmental and behavioral pediatrician who treats children with CMV. He said some children are being diagnosed as toddlers. He told lawmakers that screenings need to be done in the first 21 days of a baby's life.

"We want to get it early so we can do an early intervention. We know certain problems can happen with these children. We know hearing loss can be progressive, so we need to follow them," Meister said while testifying before members of the Legislature's Health and Human Services Committee. 

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Cathy Breen, D-Cumberland, also requires educational materials about the risks of CMV to be made available to patients. A similar bill that would have required universal newborn screenings was defeated five years ago. Sweet said it could have caught children with CMV at the earliest stages.  

"Parents might have known, and it could have made a difference," Sweet added.

Health and Human Services Committee members unanimously approved the bill with some changes, including requiring the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention to develop a plan for testing and education and prevention efforts statewide. The legislation is expected to be sent to the full Legislature for a vote sometime in the future.

For the latest research on universal screening for CMV and treatments from the National CMV Foundation, click here.

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