By allowing ads to appear on this site, you support the local businesses who, in turn, support great journalism.
January is Birth Defects Prevention Month
Health advice
Placeholder Image
January is Birth Defects Prevention Month and we want to take this opportunity to highlight the seriousness of this problem and to thank the March of Dimes for all that they do. Their programs research critical issues, offer grants and preventive activities and education as well as seek solutions for health issues in infants and children.
About 120,000 babies (1 in 33) in the United States are born each year with birth defects - the leading cause of death for children in their first year of life. In the United States, the medical costs of care for children with disabilities resulting from birth defects have been estimated to exceed $1.4 billion annually.
While the causes of 70 percent of all birth defects are currently unknown, some factors that we do know are:
1. Genetic: About 20 percent of all birth defects are believed to be inherited or  associated with chromosomal changes. Each person has from 30,000 to 35,000 genes that determine traits, such as eye and hair color, or that direct our growth and development and  just “one” abnormal gene among them can cause a defect. Genes are packaged into each of the 46 chromosomes inside our cells and each child gets half its genes from each of his parents. Genetic birth defects occur when the following is present:
“Dominant inheritance” is when one parent (who may or may not have the disease) passes along a single faulty gene. Examples include achondroplasia (a form of dwarfism) and Marfan syndrome (a connective tissue disease).
“Recessive inheritance” is when both parents (who do not have those diseases) happen to carry the same abnormal gene and pass it on to a child. Examples include Tay-Sachs disease (a fatal disorder seen mainly in people of European Jewish heritage) and cystic fibrosis (a fatal disorder of lungs and other organs that mainly affects mainly Caucasians).
“X-linked inheritance” is when sons inherit a genetic disease from a mother who carries the gene (usually with no effect on her own health). Examples include hemophilia (a blood-clotting disorder) and Duchenne muscular dystrophy (progressive muscle weakness).
“Abnormalities in the number or structure of chromosomes” can cause numerous birth defects. Usually due to an error that occurred when an egg or sperm cell was developing, a baby can be born with too many or too few chromosomes, or with one or more chromosomes that are broken or rearranged. Down syndrome, in which a baby is born with an extra chromosome 21, is one of the most common chromosomal abnormalities.
“Missing or extra sex chromosomes (X and Y)” affect sexual development and may cause infertility, growth abnormalities, and behavioral and learning problems.
2. Environmental factors, such as drug or alcohol abuse, infections; or exposure to certain medications (such as the acne drug Accutane) or other chemicals can result in birth defects. About 10 percent of problems seen at birth can be traced to a specific agent (environmental agent, drug, biologic, or nutritional factor). Some birth defects appear to be caused by a combination of one or more genes and environmental factors (called multifactorial inheritance). Some examples include cleft lip/palate, clubfoot and some heart defects. Birth defects are generally grouped into three major categories:
I. Structural and metabolic abnormalities
a. Structural birth defect is when some part of the body (internal or external) is missing or malformed. Heart defects are the most common type of structural birth defect affecting one baby in 125. While advances in surgery have dramatically improved the outlook for some affected babies, these remain the leading cause of birth defect-related infant deaths. Doctors usually do not know what causes a baby’s heart to form abnormally, although genetic and environmental factors are believed to play a role.     
b. Metabolic disorders affect one in 3,500 babies. While not usually visible, they can be harmful and in some cases fatal. Most metabolic disorders are recessive genetic diseases that result from the inability of cells to produce an enzyme (protein) needed to change certain chemicals into others, or to carry substances from one place to another.
Phenylketonuria (PKU) is an example of a metabolic disorder. Babies with this disorder cannot process a part of protein, which causes it to build up in blood and causes brain damage. PKU is routinely detected with newborn screening tests and affected babies can be placed on a special diet that prevents mental retardation.
II. Congenital infections - Rubella (German measles) is probably the best-known congenital infection that can cause birth defects. If a pregnant woman is infected with rubella in the first trimester, her baby has a one-in-four chance of being born with one or more features of congenital rubella syndrome, which include deafness, mental retardation, heart defects and blindness. Fortunately, this syndrome is now rare in the U.S. because we have widespread vaccination. Another example, sexually transmitted infections in the mother can endanger the fetus and newborn and about one baby in 2,000 is affected in this way. One such infection, untreated syphilis can result in stillbirth, newborn death, or bone defects.
III. Other causes of birth defects include fetal alcohol syndrome, which affects one baby in 1,000. This pattern of mental and physical birth defects is common in babies of mothers who drink heavily during pregnancy. Even moderate or light drinking during pregnancy can pose a risk to the baby. Rh disease of the newborn, which is caused by an incompatibility between the blood of a mother and her fetus, affects about 4,000 infants a year. It can result in jaundice (yellowing of the skin), anemia, brain damage and death which can usually be prevented by giving an Rh-negative woman an injection of a blood product called immunoglobulin at 28 weeks of pregnancy and after the delivery of an Rh-positive baby. Babies of mothers who use cocaine early in pregnancy may also be at increased risk of birth defects. A recent study has suggested that these babies are five times more likely to be born with urinary tract defects than babies of women who don’t use cocaine.
While the causes of most birth defects are not known, there are a number of steps a woman can take to reduce her risk of having a baby with a birth defect. A pre-pregnancy visit with her health care provider can be very important. During this visit, the healthcare provider can help identify risk factors for birth defects or inherited genetic conditions and order appropriate testing and screening prior to pregnancy. It is also a good time for providers to take a good look at a woman’s health and lifestyle, and guide her in any changes that could improve her chances of having a healthy baby. This is especially crucial for women with medical problems such as diabetes, high blood pressure, and epilepsy.
All women who could possibly become pregnant should take a daily multivitamin containing 400 micrograms of the B-vitamin folic acid. Studies show that taking this vitamin prior to and in the early weeks of pregnancy reduces the risk of having a baby with certain birth defects of the brain and spine, including spina bifida. If a woman already has had a baby with one of these birth defects, she should consult her doctor prior to pregnancy, as a higher dose will probably be recommended for her.

Rick factors
for birth defects that
can be prevented
• Low birth weight babies: The risk factors for low birth weight babies are poor maternal nutrition, teenage pregnancy, premature birth, drug and alcohol use, smoking and the presence of sexually transmitted diseases.
Low birth weight is associated with a significant risk of cerebral palsy, mental retardation, retinopathy, premature birth, cerebral hemorrhage, deafness, autism, and epilepsy. If all women began prenatal care in the first trimester of pregnancy, the number of low birth weight babies would be reduced by an estimated 12,600 per year.
• Smoking: About 25 percent of all pregnant women smoke throughout their pregnancies. Smoking during pregnancy is closely associated with premature birth, increased respiratory problems in infants and Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS).
• Fetal Alcohol Syndrome: FAS is the leading preventable cause of birth defects and mental retardation and is estimated to occur in the U.S. in 1-3 infants per 1000 live births. For every child born with FAS, 10 more suffer from alcohol-related problems. FAS is characterized by growth retardation and cerebral involvement. Facial abnormalities can be seen in about one-third of the infants born to women who drank heavily during pregnancy. Heavy drinking is defined as an average of 1 ounce or more of alcohol per day.
• Teenage pregnancies: Teenage mothers are more likely to get inadequate prenatal care and are at a higher risk of poverty, inadequate weight gain, alcohol or drug use, and a nutritionally inadequate diet. All of these factors are associated with infant mortality and low birth weight.
• Drug abuse: One recent estimate found that 1 in 5 pregnant women (or about 740,000 women) use one or more illegal substances during pregnancy. Studies show that cocaine use among pregnant women ranges from 8-18 percent and the additional medical expenses for infants who have been exposed to cocaine while in the uterus total an estimated $504 million per year.
• AIDS: About one-third of babies born to HIV-positive mothers will develop AIDS by 18 months of age. AIDS is the ninth leading cause of death for children 1-4 years old and it is likely to increase to one of the top five causes.
Sign up for our e-newsletters