Study Shows Saliva Can Screen Newborns for Potential Hearing Loss

A study from the June 2 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine finds that swabbing a newborn's mouth for saliva can be an effective screen for cytomegalovirus (CMV) infection, a leading cause of hearing loss in children.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, congenital CMV infection is the most common infection passed from mother to child. Each year, about 1 in 150 children are born with congenital CMV infection and 1 in 5 develops permanent problems such as hearing loss or developmental disabilities. Infants and children who are infected with CMV after birth do not usually have problems.

In an effort to find the most effective screening test for CMV infection, researchers from the University of Alabama at Birmingham enrolled nearly 35,000 newborns from seven hospitals in the study between June 2008 and November 2009. Saliva samples taken from infants who were about one day old were compared to dried blood samples—the standard method used to detect CMV infection in newborns. They found that both liquid saliva and the dried saliva samples were accurate in identifying the babies born with the infection (100 percent and 97.4 percent, respectively), leading them to conclude that saliva tests "should be considered potential screening tools for CMV in newborns."

Those who tested positive for cytomegalovirus infection were enrolled in a follow-up program to monitor their hearing every six months until age 4.

"We now know that we have a test with saliva that works," said Suresh Boppana, M.D., one of the UAB researchers. "The challenge is, unlike the dried blood spot, which is already used for newborn screening in hospitals across the country, we don't have a system in place for the collection of saliva. But we've shown that if you wanted to test a lot of babies for congenital CMV infection, it can be done."

The research was funded by the National Institutes of Health National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders.

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