About Birth Defects
Birth defect also called birth anomaly is a problem that happens while a baby is developing in the Mother’s body. A birth defect may affect one’s organ, part of the body, or several organs or systems.
About one in every 33 babies born in the United States has a birth defect. Some birth defects could be very serious the baby may not survive or it could be mild birth defects and require a one-time medical or surgical intervention. However, other birth defects will need months and sometimes years of medical or surgical help, and assistance with developmental services for the baby to reach their best potential. Some birth defects could be as a result of exposures to chemicals or medicines and others could be as a result of chromosomal disorders.
In some cases, the cause of some birth defect is known from past experience and discovered quickly. An example is the drug “Thalidomide” discovered to cause very severe limb and body defects. The drug, thalidomide, was given to pregnant women to combat morning sickness. Also, smoking, alcohol use and poor nutrition could pose a high risk of birth defects.
The most frequently occurring birth defects cases are “Congenital Heart defects” and “Congenital or urinary tract defects”. A congenital heart defect is a problem with the structure of the heart. About 1 in every 100 to 200 babies is born with a heart defect and is responsible for more deaths in the first year of life than any other birth defects.
Another factor in some birth defects is “exposures.” One of the best known cases of exposure to toxins is the Love Canal toxic waste dump in New York State. Homes and schools were built over land that had been used as a chemical waste dump. The toxins, sometimes called “teratogens” over time leeched into water and soil and exposed people, including women who would become pregnant. This is an environmental exposure. An environmental exposure may be short and intense or exist for a long period of time at a low level with repeated exposures. Some cancers were attributed to exposure to toxins from the Love Canal. Other sources of exposures we hear about more are the contamination of food and products that may contain toxins. The Minamata disaster affected hundreds of babies born to women in Minamata, Japan. A petrochemical company discharging waste into the Minamata Bay exposed fish and other sea life that was the primary food source for the local population to methylmercury. At that time, it was believed that the placenta protected an unborn child from toxins in the bloodstream but the opposite was the case. The placenta removes the toxins from the mother’s bloodstream and concentrates the chemical in the fetus. Exposure to toxins from foodstuffs, especially fish, is increasingly in the news. Women whom plan to become pregnant or are pregnant are given recommendation on the kind and amount of fish recommended for a healthy pregnancy
Timing of exposure is critical to determining which birth defects occur, depending on the sequence of organ formation before birth. In most cases,the critical window of exposure is during the first trimester, often before a woman knows she is pregnant. Therefore it is unlikely that 100% of birth defects can be prevented. Since the mandated folic acid supplementation of certain cereal and grain products began in 1998, the incidence of central nervous system defects has been reduced, but there is still room for improvement (CDC, 2004).
Birth Defect Surveillance in Maryland
Maryland law established a Birth Defects Reporting and Information System (BDRIS) in 1982, and data has been collected since 1983. More information on Maryland’s birth defects monitoring can be found at Birth Defects Reporting and Information System. Information on national birth defects monitoring programs is at National Birth Defects Prevention Network. A recent change in Maryland law will greatly increase the number and type of birth defects reported
The Office for Genetics and Children with Special Health Care Needs is the home of the birth defects monitoring program in DHMH. In addition to collecting data, the OGCSHCN also coordinates newborn screening, and helps to link the families of these children with the resources they need to live healthy, productive lives. It also provides follow-up confirmation of original reports, and collects information on delayed diagnoses, to the extent that resources allow.
What you can do?
If you are planning to become pregnant, or are already pregnant, it is very important to see a doctor and get good care. Smoking, alcohol and illegal drugs can harm your unborn baby. Good nutrition, especially enough folic acid, is important in preventing birth defects. All women of reproductive status should receive at least 400 micrograms of folic acid per day (CDC, 2004). If you don’t have a doctor, contact your local health department to find a WIC clinic near you.