Having a child with birth defects can be a life-changing experience, especially when a parent may be unfamiliar with their child’s condition. Learning more about birth defects, what causes them, and misconceptions helps to make parents feel more empowered.
A birth defect occurs when a baby is developing in the mother’s womb. Most birth defects happen during the first three months of pregnancy. Since birth defects are relatively rare in the general population, many people remain unaware of what they are or why they occur. An estimated 240,000 newborns die worldwide within 28 days of birth yearly due to birth defects. Birth defects cause a further 170,000 deaths of children between the ages of one month and five years. Birth defects contribute to long-term disability, which takes a significant mental and financial toll on individuals, families, healthcare systems, and societies.
Birth defects may affect how the body looks, works, or both. Some birth defects like cleft lip or neural tube defects are structural problems that can range from mild to severe. How a birth defect affects a child’s life depends mostly on which organ or body part is involved and how severe the defect is. The most common birth defects are heart defects, neural tube defects, and down syndrome. Some of these birth defects can be prevented, through vaccination, adequate intake of folic acid or iodine through fortification of staple foods or supplementation, and adequate care before and during pregnancy.
All expectant mothers are at risk of delivering a child with birth defects. The risks increase under any of the following conditions:
- Family history of birth defects or other genetic disorders.
- Drug use, alcohol consumption, or smoking during pregnancy
- Maternal age of 35 years or older.
- Inadequate prenatal care.
- Untreated viral or bacterial infections, including sexually transmitted infections.
- Use of high-risk medications, such as lithium
Researchers know the causes of some birth defects, however, for many faults, the exact causes are unknown. Researchers think that most birth defects are caused by a complex mix of factors, which include:
- Genetics. One or more genes might have a change or undergo a mutation.
- Infection during pregnancy.
- Lifestyle choices and behavior.
- Exposure to certain medications and chemicals.
- A combination of these factors.
Many birth defects can’t be prevented, but there are some ways to lower the risk of delivering a baby with a birth defect. Women who plan to become pregnant should start taking folic acid supplements before conception. These supplements should also be taken throughout the pregnancy and are available at all government hospitals free of charge. Folic acid can help prevent defects in the spine and brain. Prenatal vitamins are also recommended during pregnancy. Women should also avoid alcohol, drugs, and tobacco during pregnancy. They should also only take medications on the doctor’s advice. It’s imperative to attend regular prenatal care appointments. If your pregnancy is considered high-risk, your doctor can do additional prenatal screening to identify defects.
Through the resolution of birth defects, together with its partners World Health Organisation (WHO) convenes annual training programs on the surveillance and prevention of birth defects. WHO is also working with its partners to provide the required technical expertise for the surveillance of neural tube defects, for monitoring the fortification of staple foods with folic acid, and for improving laboratory capacity for assessing risks for folic acid-preventable birth defects. WHO is also assisting low- and middle-income countries in improving the control and elimination of rubella and congenital rubella syndrome through immunization.
As a parent, it can be a mind shift, however, this is an opportunity devastating to have a child with a birth defect but this should not make one lose hope or be frustrated because some birth defects may improve with long-term medical support including physical, speech, occupational therapy, and also family and community support. In Kenya, all referral hospitals have been equipped with the best pediatrics doctors to guide you on what to do and how to handle a special child.