At a workship session in January, the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee agreed that it wants newborns screened for CMV, a dangerous virus that effects 1 in 200 babies. Screenshot from video

Maine lawmakers are taking aim at a virus that’s a leading cause of deafness and cerebral palsy among infants and toddlers.

Congenital cytomegalovirus is the most common viral infection in newborns, occurring when a pregnant woman is infected and passes the virus to her unborn baby, where it can impact brain development and more.

Caught early, antiviral drugs and other therapies can often help minimize the dangers, including the benefits of discovering hearing loss quickly instead of months or years later.

“Early intervention is treatment,” said Dr. Duska Thurston, director of newborn services at Northern Light Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor.

The Legislature’s Committee on Health and Human Services recently endorsed a bill that would call on regulators to come up with rules to ensure proper screening, particularly for infants who fail two hearing tests, a clear warning sign for CMV.

Dr. Mark Schleiss, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Minnesota Medical School, said screening saves money because identifying the problem quickly staves off a barrage of medical testing later when doctors are trying to figure out what’s wrong with youngsters exhibiting problems.

Advertisement

“Timing is so critical here,” Schleiss told the panel recently.

Minnesota’s health commissioner this month approved the addition of CMV to the list of conditions for which newborns are routinely screened, paving the way for Minnesota to become the first state in the nation to add CMV to a panel of blood spot tests already done. In Maine, newborns are routinely tested for a number of rare but serious medical conditions but CMV is not one of them.

The bill would also boost state efforts to educate pregnant women and potential mothers about the risks associated with the virus, something a 2017 report recommended.

“Parents call it the most common infection I’ve heard of,” Thurston said.

The disease is both commonplace and mild among children and adults. Its risk is to unborn children.

Doctors told the legislative panel that one of the most common ways that pregnant mothers catch it is by eating food off the plate of their children, unaware of the possible dangers involved.

Advertisement

Meghan Carey, a mother in Portland with a thriving 7-year-old who caught CMV and now has bilateral cochlear implants, told lawmakers that her son failed two hearing screenings at the hospital, but it didn’t trigger any alarms.

“We were assured that a failed test is common in premature births and often due to innocuous circumstances,” she said, and was referred to an audiologist for a further exam in a couple of months.

The specialist confirmed the boy had “moderately severe hearing loss” and slated another test. By then, the hearing loss was considered profound.

Carey said she and her husband “can’t help but consider that our path may have been different. What if our doctors in Maine used the newborn hearing test as a trigger to screen for CMV? What if one of the doctors or specialists we saw in the early days had noted the signs?”

If that had happened, it’s possible her son’s hearing might have been preserved with no need for the cochlear implants, she said.

Finding out early, Schleiss said, is “when you can still make a difference” to the outcome in many cases.

Advertisement

“Education will go a long way,” said Sen. Cathy Breen, a Falmouth Democrat who submitted the bill. “This is public health 101.”

Thurston said most mothers and some medical professionals don’t know anything about CMV, which makes early intervention difficult.

Universal screening “would be great,” she said.

The co-chairman of the committee, Sen. Ned Claxton, an Auburn Democrat and retired physician, said it may be best to build into the protocol that exists for all newborns, ensuring the disease won’t be overlooked.

Lawmakers decided to ask state regulators to come up with a rule that would accomplish just that, probably within a year. The committee unanimously urged the Legislature to approve the amended bill.

Breen said she is happy the panel “could move the ball forward for better public policy.”


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: