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Silent virus that blinds, deafens and kills babies

By Mactilda Mbenywe | Published Tue, June 5th 2018 at 00:00, Updated June 4th 2018 at 20:21 GMT +3
A section of new mothers breastfeed their newborns at Kisumu County Hospital on January 01,2018 after delivery. (Photo: Denish Ochieng/ Standard)

A mother's joy of receiving her newborn was turned into sadness when it emerged that the baby was blind.

When The Standard visited Jaramogi Teaching and Referral Hospital yesterday, Mary Adhiambo was watching over her son, hoping he would open his eyes.

Doctors at the facility said the child was born blind and there was nothing they could do to restore his sight. “How sad that my son will never see my face. I longed for this moment. Giving birth to a blind baby has turned my joy into sadness,” said Adhiambo.

Kenya Medical Research Institute (Kemri) says the infant's blindness was caused by an infection called Congenital Cytomegalovirus (CMV).

CMV is said to occur when a virus from the mother crosses the placenta to infect the immune system of the foetus.

This happens when the mother gets a primary CMV infection, or when a mother, who had been infected before, gets a reinfection or reactivation of the infection.

Kemri's research officer on infectious diseases in maternal and child birth Nancy Otieno said Adhiambo's baby became blind because of the infection, whose prevalence is high in the region.

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“Consequences of CMV include foetal or infant death, blindness and infants being deaf,” said Dr Otieno.

She said CMV may cause severe and sometimes life-threatening diseases among persons who are HIV-infected.

“HIV-infected mothers are more likely to acquire CMV infection and, in turn, are more likely to transmit the virus to their unborn,” she explained.

The pediatrics study carried out at Kenyatta National Hospital proves CMV appears in many mothers and newborns.

Dr Otieno, who is the study's principal investigator, said the survey, which started in 2015, enrolled 2,000 mothers. Their saliva and dry blood spots specimen were taken from their two week old babies and tested for the virus.

“It is a virus that most healthy people carry around with them. Its impact is greatest on the unborn children and the burden is heaviest on pregnant women,” she said.

Otieno reported that results show that more than 90 per cent of the mothers were positive for CMV.

She said many mothers with CMV may not show symptoms. However, during pregnancy, the mothers’ immune system weakens and that exposes mother to reinfections of the virus given that their immunity is low.

“The consequences of CMV may lead to neurological sensory impairments. Children are born with sight and hearing problems, and may end up being deaf in some severe cases. The virus also causes foetal death. Infants may also die after birth,” said Dr Otieno.

She reported that Nyanza has a high CMV prevalence due to high rates of HIV.

The medic noted that research had shown that those whose immune was compromised, including HIV positive people, were likely to acquire CMV and were more likely to transmit the infection to their unborn infants.

Otieno said Kenya has CMV prevalence of 4 per cent in infants. Infants born of HIV+ mothers have a prevalence of 5 per cent.

Highest prevalence

“These are the world’s highest prevalence rates, given that other countries have in the past recorded prevalence rates of 2 per cent,” she said.

She added: "We are following up on the babies of the enrolled mothers so they can visit the clinic every three months. They will be monitored for up to two years for evaluation of their growth and development to identify the impact the virus might have on them," she said.

Otieno said the diseases has not been recognised. It silently lives in people and may cause severe effects on those affected.

“There are no treatment guidelines and nobody talks about the disease, yet majority of population has the infection,” the doctor said.

She advised those tested for CMV to go for regular checkups so that the virus can be managed.

Otieno said testing for CMV is expensive and many health facilities lack necessary equipment.


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