Birth defects mean structural or functional abnormalities in the baby while still being in the womb (utero). Birth defects can vary from minor to severe. They may affect organ function, formation of body parts and their functioning, how the bodies turn food into energy and mental development.
According to March of Dimes (MOD) Global Report on Birth Defects, there are estimated 8 million births worldwide with serious birth defects which translate to roughly 6% of live births. As per a research published in Indian Journal of human genetics, in India, birth defect rate varies from 61 to 69.9 per 1000 live births. India is said to account the highest number of infants with birth defects and genetic disorders in the world.
While a majority of birth defects take place during first three months of pregnancy, when the organs are still forming. However, some birth defects can occur in the last six months of pregnancy when the tissues and organs are still in the process of growth and development.
As per Centre disease control and prevention, birth defects are the leading cause of infant deaths.
Common birth defects:
In common parlance, birth defects are classified as :
- Structural: Structural defects are when any body part is missing or malformed. Common structural birth defects include heart defects, cleft lip or palate, spina bifida(when spinal cord does not develop properly), clubfoot etc.
- Functional and developmental: Functional or developmental birth defects occur when certain body parts or systems do not function well and may cause developmental disabilities. These include metabolic defects, sensory problems and nervous system defects. Common functional and developmental birth defects include Down’s syndrome, sickle cell disease, cystic fibrosis etc.
Birth defects can have a variety of causes. It can be difficult or impossible to identify the causes of some birth defects. According to the March of Dimes, there are no known causes to more than half of all the birth defects. It can still be said that, about 40% of all birth defects are the result of genetic or environmental factors or a combination of both.
Through past research some key causes identified behind birth defects are as follows:
- A child may suffer from birth defects due to genetic abnormalities. Either a gene or a part of it may be missing or one or more genes may not work properly. Such defect may be present throughout the family history or passed on by one or both parents.
- Usually, a child inherits one of each pairs of chromosomes from each parent during conception. An error during this process, such as having an extra chromosome or missing part of a chromosome can cause birth defects.
- If, during pregnancy, a mother contracts certain infections such as toxoplasmosis, rubella and chicken pox (varicella), this can lead to a birth defect in the baby. Fortunately, these infections are preventable since many people get vaccinated against them.
- Certain behaviours practiced by the mother like smoking, using illegal drugs, and drinking alcohol while being pregnant can cause birth defects.
- A mother suffering from certain medical conditions, such as being obese or having uncontrolled diabetes before and during pregnancy is at a higher risk for having babies with birth defects.
- Having a history of birth defect running in the family or having someone in the family with a birth defect.
- Taking certain harmful medications during pregnancy. For example, taking isotretinoin to treat severe acne.
- There is an increased risk of baby having birth defects when the mother is exposed to pesticides, fungicides, chemicals, lead, heavy metals, paints and other toxic substances.
- Places of occupation like beauty salon, nail salons, paint factories, metal cleaning operations and other agricultural industry is also a risk.
- Inadequate prenatal care is another risk factor
- Some untreated viral or bacterial infections, including sexually transmitted diseases.
- A possible risk, being a mother more than 34 years of age.
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According to researchers, there are more than 4,000 different kind of birth defects. The treatment varies according to the symptoms and severity of birth defects.
- If your child is diagnosed with any birth defects, parents should get a second opinion. Consult your paediatrician or obstetrician or an appropriate specialist.
- Secondly, take medications properly to treat birth defects or to lower the risk of certain complications.
- Physical birth defects can be corrected via surgeries. For example, plastic surgery for cleft lip and surgery for heart defects.
- It is important for parents to be well aware. They should ask questions, learn and focus on their child’s impairments and help them to overcome them.
- Parents should consult a clinical geneticist or a genetic counsellor before planning a pregnancy, especially if known genetic abnormalities exist in either of the family trees.
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The chances of having a birth defect can be lowered by taking certain precautions.
- Before becoming pregnant, be sure to check any medical conditions like diabetes and obesity are under control.
- As you get pregnant, consult your doctor and start good prenatal care.
- It is very important to consult your doctor if you’re taking any kind of medication or dietary or herbal supplements. Start or stop taking any type of medicine only after talking to your doctor.
- Before pregnancy, be sure to be vaccinated and get a check for sexually transmitted diseases (STDs).
- Follow a healthy diet and take prenatal vitamins during pregnancy.
- Take 400 micrograms of folic acid every day, at least one month before getting pregnant.
While given the wide variety of different factors at play, it may not be possible to completely avoid birth defects. Avoid specific risks pertaining to them to improve your chances of having a healthy baby. Awareness and consulting doctor is a major step, in every case.
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