Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Soap and Water Prevent Birth Defects

Soon a magazine will be publishing the following story with sidebar. I was asked to get it down to 825 words, which I've done in the following:

Soap and Water Prevent Birth Defects
Lisa Saunders

Few women of child-bearing age realize that plain old soap and water can prevent the #1 viral cause of birth defects, congenital cytomegalovirus (CMV).

Although congenital CMV causes more birth defects than Down syndrome, more than half of OB/GYNs surveyed by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists admitted they don't routinely caution their patients how to avoid the virus.

I'm a mother who didn't know about CMV prevention until it was too late for my daughter, Elizabeth, who was born severely disabled by congenital CMV in 1989. The moment I saw her, I felt a stab of fear--her head was so small, so deformed. The neonatologist said, "If she lives, she will never roll over, sit up, or feed herself." He was right.

How and why did I catch this virus that I had barely heard of? The CMV literature stated that the virus is spread through bodily fluids such as saliva and urine. Women who care for young children are at a higher risk for catching it because preschoolers are the majority of carriers. (Nurses, however, do not seem to be in the risk category because they practice consistent hand-washing and aren’t kissing their patients around the mouth or sharing utensils with them).
While I was pregnant with Elizabeth, I not only had a toddler of my own, but also ran a licensed daycare center in my home. I felt sick at what my ignorance had done to my little girl. In milder cases, children with congenital CMV may lose hearing or struggle with learning disabilities later in life. But Elizabeth's case was not a mild one.

It took about a year, but I eventually stopped praying that a nuclear bomb would drop on my house so I could escape my overwhelming anguish over Elizabeth's condition. Life did become good again--but it took a lot of help from family, friends, the Book of Psalms, and a couple of prescription sedatives!

Sixteen years after Elizabeth’s birth, I awoke on her birthday feeling so proud of her. She had fought hard to stay with us, surviving several bouts of pneumonia, seizures and surgeries. Weighing only 50 pounds, she looked odd to strangers as a result of her small head and big adult teeth, but she was lovely to us with her long, thick brown hair, large blue eyes and soul-capturing smile. Although Elizabeth was still in diapers, and could not speak or hold up her head, she was a very happy little girl, with a love of adventure— long car rides being one of her favorite activities. She especially loved going to school and being surrounded by people, paying no mind to the stares of other children who approached her in public. She smiled at anyone who would stroke her hair or cheek. When she wasn't busy, she sat propped on our couch watching cartoons with a big, lazy dog we got from an animal shelter.

Two months after her 16th birthday, Elizabeth died suddenly during a seizure. Holding her body in his arms and looking into her lifeless eyes, my husband, Jim, cried, "No one is ever going to look at me again the way Elizabeth did." Now my girl would be forever "sweet sixteen."

In an effort to educate those who have never heard of congenital CMV, I wrote a light-hearted memoir about Elizabeth’s life with her lazy, old devoted canine, called, "Anything But a Dog! The perfect pet for a girl with congenital CMV." It includes interviews with the country's leading CMV experts and raises funds for CMV research and parent support if purchased through the National Congenital CMV Disease Registry.

To see photos of Elizabeth growing up or to meet other families affected by congenital CMV, please visit my Web site at


Lisa Saunders is a full-time writer for the State University of New York at Rockland Community College and is a member of its Speakers Bureau. She is a STOP CMV and Congenital CVM Foundation representative and author of "Anything But a Dog! The perfect pet for a girl with congenital CMV"; "Ride a Horse, Not an Elevator" and "Ever True: A Union Private and His Wife." Lisa and her husband, Jim, reside in Suffern, New York, with their beagle/basset hound. Visit Lisa at

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC):
· Every hour, congenital CMV causes one child to become disabled
· Each year, about 30,000 children are born with congenital CMV infection
· About 1 in 750 children is born with or develops permanent disabilities due to CMV
· About 8,000 children each year suffer permanent disabilities caused by CMV
Reduce Chances of Contracting CMV:
· Refrain from kissing children around the mouth
· Refrain from sharing food and utensils with others, especially children.
· Wash your hands diligently with soap and water after wiping runny noses, changing diapers, etc. If soap and water are not available, use alcohol-based hand gel.