While awareness of the Zika virus continues to grow worldwide, Amy Armstrong-Heimsoth, OTD, OTR/L, graduate of the Post-professional Doctor of Occupational Therapy program at RMUoHP, is hoping to bring greater awareness of cytomegalovirus (CMV). Congenital CMV is the most common viral cause of birth defects in the United States and causes an estimated 400 deaths each year.
Dr. Armstrong-Heimsoth, who is now an assistant clinical professor of occupational therapy at Northern Arizona University, joined a team researching CMV after one of her colleagues had a child with severe cerebral palsy as a result of contracting CMV before birth.
Through their research, which included a sampling of members from the American Occupational Therapy Association and the American Physical Therapy Association, significant knowledge gaps about CMV were found for both occupational and physical therapists. In fact, their level of familiarity with the virus was similar to or less than the general population. When compared to a research paper written in 1995 by a student at University of Puget Sound, the results haven’t improved much, if any.
CMV is a common virus that infects people of all ages. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that more than half of adults over the age of 40 have contracted the virus, which stays with the host for life and can reactivate. While most people will show mild or no symptoms, it can be very serious for people with weakened immune systems, premature infants and babies who are infected before birth.
Each year, 20,000 to 40,000 infants are born with CMV. Eight percent of them either have or will develop permanent disabilities including hearing loss, microcephaly, intellectual deficits and vision abnormalities.
Dr. Armstrong-Heimsoth, along with her colleagues, fears that children, who need physical or occupational therapy as a result of disabilities caused by CMV, are being turned away by their providers, because they are afraid of contracting the virus themselves.
“The spread is 100 percent preventable,” said Armstrong-Heimsoth. “CMV is contracted through saliva and urine, so therapists just need to use standard precautions, which would be expected workplace safety anyway.” These practices would include things like regular hand washing, especially after contact with bodily fluids of young children and cleaning children’s toys after each use.
Her hypothesis for why these knowledge gaps aren’t closing is because of the way students are taught about the virus. CMV is generally taught in a group of infections known as TORCH, which typically stands for toxoplasmosis, rubella, cytomegalovirus, herpes simplex, and HIV, but can also include other newborn infections. However, these viruses are all different in their impact and modes of transmission.
“Clumping these varying viruses together does CMV and the other viruses in that group a disservice,” said Armstrong-Heimsoth. “You run the risk of the students learning or remembering them as one virus. When in reality they all have quite variable modes of transmission, which could have a negative impact on occupational health safety.”