Reseachers have discovered more about how human cytomegalovirus (HCMV), a virus transmitted through contact with human bodily fluids, has managed to become one of the leading causes of birth defects in the United States. In a new study, researchers learned that the virus acts to prevent a cell's normal ability to repair itself. This has led to a situation where, of the 40,000 babies born each year infected with the virus, 4,000 have birth defects ranging from hearing loss to cerebral palsy to microcephaly, where the head is too small.
While HCMV typically remains dormant in healthy individuals, when a woman is pregnant, her immune system becomes weakened, making it more likely that she will be infected by the virus. At present there is no cure, but researchers hope that through learning more about the way the virus functions, they can develop treatments that would prevent birth defects.
Through this latest study, researchers have determined that when HCMV infects a cell, it creates "centers" inside the cell's nucleus through which it replicates itself. The proteins that repair cellular damage become trapped in these centers and are therefore unable to stop the virus's destruction. To test this theory, they exposed the virus to ultraviolet irradiation, which damaged the DNA of both the cell and the virus. One day later, the researchers found that while the virus had repaired itself, the cell remained damaged. The damaged cells could ultimately lead to the fetus being infected.
For now, researchers still don't know what parts of the virus are responsible for preventing cellular repair, and note that it will require further study. They emphasize that HCMV is entirely preventable and urge people to wash their hands well and to use gloves in unsanitary situations.
It would be very unfortunate to have a baby with a birth defect as a result of such a virus. Birth defects such as mental retardation or cerebral palsy mean a lifetime of medical bills, which can quickly steep a family in debt. If that were your situation, would you have recourse against the source of the virus through litigation, which could lead to a monetary award? You might, though it would likely be difficult. First, you would have to determine that the birth defect was actually the result of the virus. Unfortunately, there are many different potential causes of birth defects, including environmental toxins, genetics, and lifestyle. Even if you did determine that the virus, and nothing else, caused the birth defect, you would have to determine how it was caused. If it was transferred sexually and you had few partners, you might be able to determine the source. However, if it was transferred through contact with someone else's saliva or urine, you could potentially have thousands of sources and no ability to narrow it down. In all likelihood, you would not be able to get monetary relief if you sued the potential source of the virus because you would not be able to meet your burden of proof.