University of Edinburgh

Medical Information on Cytomegalovirus

by Dr Andrew Blaikie for VI Scotland

This document is written with the minimum use of medical terms and jargon. It is impossible to avoid all medical terms but where we have used them we have attempted to explain them as clearly as we can. Although the information is intended to describe most aspects of the condition each child is different and there will always be exceptions to the rule. As far as we can determine these pages are true and accurate and have been written in good faith.

What this information is not for

This document is not a substitute for a consultation with a Health Professional and should not to be used as a means of diagnosing a condition.

We hope the information will help you to:

  • Have a better understanding of the condition
  • Know what tests and treatments are normally available
  • Know when to seek professional advice
  • Be able to discuss the condition in a more informed way
  • Make the most of consultations with carers, teachers and health professionals
  • Be reassured and more able to cope

Due to staffing limitations we are not able to offer telephone or email advice to parents of children.

Medical Information on Cytomegalovirus

What we see is made in the brain from signals given to it by the eyes. What we see is in fact made in the brain. The brain makes sight from signals given to it by the eyes.

What is the normal structure of the eye?

The eye is made of three parts.

    • A light focussing bit at the front (cornea and lens).
    • A light sensitive film at the back of the eye (retina).
    • A large collection of communication wires to the brain (optic nerve).

A curved window called the cornea first focuses the light. The light then passes through a hole called the pupil. A circle of muscle called the iris surrounds the pupil. The iris is the coloured part of the eye. The light is then focused onto the back of the eye by a lens. Tiny light sensitive patches (photoreceptors) cover the back of the eye. These photoreceptors collect information about the visual world. The covering of photoreceptors at the back of the eye forms a thin film known as the retina. The retina lies on a layer of nerves and blood vessels. This layer is called the choroid. The retina needs a healthy choroid to work. Each photoreceptor sends its signals down very fine wires to the brain.

The wires joining each eye to the brain are called the optic nerves. The information then travels to many different special 'vision' parts of the brain. All parts of the brain and eye need to be present and working for us to see normally.

What is Cytomegalovirus infection?

A virus is a special kind of germ. They live and grow within cells. All the different parts of the body are made up of 'cells'. Cells are tiny factories making materials that the body needs to work and grow. Viruses 'break into' cells. When a cell is 'broken into' it is said to be infected. Once a virus is inside a cell it uses the 'machinery' normally found in each cell to help it to grow and make more copies of itself (replicate). Once many thousands of copies of the virus are made the cell bursts. This releases thousands of new viruses into the body to go on and infect other cells. When the cell bursts, just like a balloon it is no longer of any use. This is how the virus causes damage to parts of an unborn child's body.

How common is Cytomegalovirus (CMV) infection?

For every one hundred babies one or two will catch a CMV infection. Most of these babies will not be affected by the infection. About 1 in 10 babies may however develop problems because of the infection.

What conditions might a CMV infection cause?

  • Learning difficulties
  • Swollen liver and spleen
  • Jaundice
  • Bruising
  • Visual Impairment

Not all children will suffer from all of these conditions. Many children are only be affected by one.

How does CMV infection cause visual impairment?

CMV infection mainly causes damage to the eyes. Conditions that may develop include:

  • Keratitis (inflammation of the cornea)
  • Cataract (clouding of the lens)
  • Chorioretinal Atrophy (wearing out of the choroid and retina)
  • Optic Atrophy (wearing out of the nerve of sight)
  • Microphthalmia (small eye)

Not all children will suffer from all of these conditions. Some children are only be affected by one.

What is Keratitis?

Keratitis is the medical word for an inflammed cornea. The cornea is the smooth clear window at the front of the eye. If keratitis develops the eye will become sore and the vision hazy.

What is Cataract?

Cataract is when the normally clear lens of the eye becomes hazy. If the lens is not clear then not all the light can get into the eye and vision is often blurred. Sometimes an operation can help the blurred vision.

What is Chorioretinal Atrophy?

Atrophy is the medical word for when a bit of the body withers away and stops working. Chorioretinal is one big word often used to describe the choroid and retina together. Chorioretinal Atrophy is a condition of the eye where both the choroid and retina are damaged by CMV infection. This causes them to wither away and stop working leading to visual impairment.

What is Optic Atrophy?

If damage occurs to the retina or optic nerve by CMV infection then some of the communication wires wear out and disappear. This is known as Optic Atrophy. By looking into the eye with a special instrument all these wires can be seen 'end on' as they exit the eye and pass to the brain. This is the 'head' of the optic nerve. If none of the wires are damaged then the 'head' of the optic nerve looks yellow and pink. If many wires are missing then the optic nerve looks pale and white. Children with optic atrophy often have visual impairment.

What is Microphthalmia?

When a baby is growing in the womb sometimes not all the parts of the baby grow fully. If an eye (ophthalmia) does not grow to its full size and is smaller (micro) than it should be this is known as Microphthalmia. CMV infection can hold up eye growth.

How is CMV Infection diagnosed?

If a child is born with some of the conditions already discussed the doctors will often suspect CMV infection. An eye doctor can also recognise the typical pattern of damage to the eyes. The virus can then be tested for by blood or urine tests. This can help confirm the diagnosis. Sometimes scans of the eyes and brain may also help.

How does CMV Infection affect the way a child sees?

Most young children will feel their vision to be 'normal' as they have never known anything else but their own visual world. At first they assume that everyone else has vision the same as their own. They do not realise that other people see things differently.

CMV infection may affect any part of the eye. It usually affects both eyes but not always equally. One eye may see better that the other. Some children will also be less affected than others. The level of visual impairment will vary between different children. Some children will have a mild visual impairment and be able to read large print and recognise faces from a far. Other children may only notice bright lights and large shapes.

Sometimes fast to-and-fro movements of the eyes occur. This is called Nystagmus. Squint may also develop. See the VI Scotland information on these conditions.

What can be done to help the eyes?

Keratitis can be made more comfortable with drops. A scarred cornea can sometimes be changed for a clear one during an operation. This is called a corneal graft operation.

Cataracts can be removed during an operation. Spectacles and contact lenses need to be worn afterwards to help the vision to develop normally.

Once Chorioretinal Atrophy has developed it does not get better. The retina cannot grow back and fix itself. Usually though the damage does not get any worse.

Damage to the nerve of sight (Optic Atrophy) does not usually improve either. When the wires wear out and disappear they do not grow back.

How can parents, family, friends and teachers make a difference?

If vision is reduced in both eyes it is important to understand how the child sees and to make up for this. We use our vision to get around, learn new things and to meet other people and make friends.

Most children with CMV infection have few problems getting around. The way they act can give the impression that their vision is normal. It is important however to be aware of their own special problems with vision.

Problems at school may be due to some of the reading books being hard to see. This often means it takes longer and more effort to do the work. If the size of print is increased most children will find schoolwork easier. If a Low Visual Aid (LVA) or spectacles have been prescribed then the child should be encouraged to us them. This will help the child see more clearly and help the vision parts of the brain develop.

It is worth watching carefully to find out what the smallest toys are that a child can see and play with. Then try to only play with toys that are the same size or bigger.

Recognising facial expressions can often be difficult. It is worth trying to find out at what distance facial expressions can be seen and responded to. Then always try to talk and smile from within this distance. This helps a child to learn what facial expressions mean and to copy them.

Even if a child has very poor vision many useful and practical things can be done to help.

Who wrote these documents?

These pages are the consensus of opinion of many different people. They include parents of visually impaired children, visually impaired children themselves, Community Paediatricians, Ophthalmologists, Educationalists and Psychologists.

The main author and person responsible for their content is Dr Andrew Blaikie who was an Ophthalmology Research Fellow with Visual Impairment Scotland and is a member of the Royal College of Ophthalmologists.

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