Cytomegalovirus (CMV) is a virus that can cause an opportunistic infection (see fact sheet 500). The virus is very common. Between 50% and 85% of the US population tests positive for CMV by the time they are 40 years old. A healthy immune system keeps this virus in check.
When the immune defenses are weak, CMV can attack several parts of the body. This can be caused by various diseases including HIV. Combination antiretroviral therapy (ART) has reduced the rate of CMV in people with HIV by 75%. However, about 5% of people with HIV still develop CMV disease.
The most common illness caused by CMV is retinitis. This is the death of cells in the retinas, the back of the eye. It can quickly cause blindness unless treated. CMV can spread throughout the body and infect several organs at once. The risk of CMV disease is highest when CD4 cell counts (see fact sheet 124) are below 50. It is rare in people with 100 or more CD4 cells.
The first signs of CMV retinitis are vision problems such as moving black spots. These are called “floaters.” They may indicate an inflammation of the retina. Patients may also notice light flashes, decreased or distorted vision, or blind spots. Some doctors recommend eye exams to catch CMV retinitis. The exams are done by an ophthalmologist (an eye specialist). If your CD4 count is below 100 and you experience any vision problems, tell your health care provider immediately.
Some patients who have recently started using ART with very low CD4 counts can get inflammation in their eyes, causing loss of vision. This is called immune reconstitution inflammatory syndrome (IRIS; See Fact Sheet 483).
The first treatments for CMV required daily intravenous infusions. Most people had a permanent medication “port” inserted into their chest or arm. People had to keep taking anti-CMV drugs for life. CMV treatments have improved dramatically over the past several years.
With strong HIV therapies, patients can stop taking CMV drugs if their CD4 cell count goes over 150 and stays there for at least three months. However, there are two special cases: Immune restoration syndrome can cause severe inflammation in the eyes of people with HIV even if they didn’t have CMV before. The usual treatment is to add anti-CMV drugs to the patient’s ARVs. If the CD4 count drops below 50, there is an increased risk of developing CMV disease.
The best way to prevent CMV disease is to get tested and start HIV treatment before CD4 counts are low.
Ganciclovir was approved for prevention (prophylaxis) of CMV. However, many health care providers don’t prescribe it. They don’t want to add up to 12 capsules a day for their patients. Also, it’s not clear that it does any good. Two large studies came to different conclusions. Finally, strong ARVs keep most people’s CD4 counts high enough so that they won’t get CMV.
There are several issues to consider when choosing a treatment for active CMV disease:
Strong ARVs are the best way to prevent CMV. If your CD4 cell count is below 100, talk with your health care provider about CMV prevention and a regular schedule of eye exams. If you have a low CD4 cell count and experience ANY unusual vision problems, see your health care provider immediately!
Treatments directly in the eye make it possible to control CMV retinitis. With the drugs to treat CMV, you can avoid implanted medication lines and daily infusions.
Most people can safely stop taking CMV medication when they take ARVs, abnd if their CD4 cell counts go up and stay above 150.