Kingston University academic to play key role in new research exploring how good hygiene impacts infant health

Posted Wednesday 27 September 2017

Researchers at Kingston University and St George's University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust are investigating whether changing pregnant women's hygiene habits could help in the fight against one of the leading causes of childhood disability.

Cytomegalovirus (CMV) is the most common congenital infection in the United Kingdom. Although the virus causes only mild symptoms in adults, it can cause permanent health problems - such as cerebral palsy, developmental delay and hearing loss - if babies are infected in the womb. However, most pregnant women are not aware of CMV or the measures that can be taken to reduce the risk of catching it, as information about the virus is not routinely offered in the NHS.

The research team, which includes behavioural experts and clinicians from Kingston University, St George's University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, University College London and Cambridge University, as well as the charity CMV Action, secured more than £300,000 from the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Research for Patient Benefit Programme.

Dr Vandrevala hopes the research will help people understand CMV and motivate them to change their behaviour.Dr Tushna Vandrevala, senior lecturer in health psychology at Kingston University, said the team will explore whether increasing awareness of the virus and encouraging parents to change their hygiene habits might be the key to reducing the risk in pregnancy.

"Currently, there is no licensed vaccine to prevent infection and no routine treatment of antenatal CMV in the NHS," Dr Vandrevala explained. "However, because the virus is spread through bodily fluids such as saliva and urine, and can be passed on through close contact with young children, following simple good hygiene rules may prevent infection being acquired in pregnancy."

As part of the three-year study, the team will work with pregnant women, their partners and families affected by congenital CMV to produce a film that outlines simple preventative measures, such as washing hands after nappy changes and not sharing utensils with toddlers. They are currently recruiting pregnant women as well as families affected by the virus to participate in the study.

Project lead, Dr Chrissie Jones, honorary senior lecturer in paediatric infectious diseases at St George's, University of London and associate professor at University of Southampton, said that despite CMV being a relatively common virus, many pregnant women were unaware of both the risks and the preventative measures. "When we meet families affected by the virus in our clinics, they are frustrated that they didn't know about the virus and potentially could have done something to avoid it," she explained. "Those families, with their passion for raising awareness and improving outcomes for children with CMV, have really motivated us to undertake this study."

The charity collaborating with the researchers, CMV Action, works with parents to raise public awareness of congenital CMV and to campaign for better prevention measures within the NHS. Chair of CMV Action Caroline Star said the research could be crucial in reducing the spread of the virus. "We witness first-hand the impact CMV has on children and their families," she explained. "We hope this research will increase awareness generally, but more importantly that it will identify the most effective ways to help parents and healthcare providers understand how making simple changes can really make a difference."

Although there is some existing evidence indicating the effectiveness of educational strategies in reducing antenatal CMV infection, this will be the first time they have been tested in the UK, Dr Vandrevala explained. "Evidence suggests women want to do everything they can to reduce risk during their pregnancy," she continued. "The aim of our film will be to both educate them and motivate them to change their behaviour."

The second phase of the study will be to test how behavioural techniques such as these could be used more widely in the NHS.

"If our long-term study shows these types of relatively low-cost, non-pharmaceutical interventions are successful, it could have a real impact for families, childcare providers and the NHS as a whole," Dr Vandrevala concluded.

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