What is a birth defect?

A birth defect is a significant abnormality of appearance, structure, or function that is present at birth or a problem that happens while the baby is developing in the mother's body. Most birth defects happen during the first three months of pregnancy. A birth defect may affect how the body looks, works or both. It can be found before birth, at birth or any time after birth, most defects are found within the first year of life. Some birth defects (such as cleft lip or clubfoot) are easy to see, but others (such as heart defects or hearing loss) are found using special tests (such as X-rays, CAT scans or hearing tests). Birth defects can vary from mild to severe. Some birth defects can cause the baby to die. Babies with birth defects may need surgery or other medical treatments, but, if they receive the help they need, these babies often lead full lives.

What are the most common birth defects? Are they preventable?

Common birth defects include congenital heart defects, cleft lip and palate and open neural tube defects (spina bifida). In some instances, birth defects are preventable, such as excessive use of alcohol causing fetal alcohol syndrome. In other instances, the risk for birth defects can be decreased, such as by taking folic acid to prevent spina bifida and proper diabetic control to prevent diabetic-related defects. Ensuring maternal nutrition before, during and after pregnancy.

When in pregnancy do birth defects happen?

Birth defects happen before a baby is born. Inherited or genetic factors; things in the environment, such as smoking or drinking alcohol or not getting enough folic acid; and a woman's illness during pregnancy can cause birth defects. Most birth defects happen in the first three months of pregnancy, when the organs of the baby are forming. This is the most important stage of development. However, some birth defects happen later in pregnancy. During the last six months of pregnancy, the tissues and organs continue to grow and develop. Some birth defects can be found before birth.

Is it true that some birth defects are a result of witch craft?

No, this is not true but just myths, false misconception that people in different communities have just because the incident happened as a coincidence when two families had a quarrel, misunderstandings and then accuse each other of witch craft which is not true, however birth defects are as a result of the factors like

Does alcohol cause birth defects?

Fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) is one of the leading known causes of mental retardation and birth defects that is as a result of drinking alcohol. If a woman drinks alcohol during her pregnancy, her baby can be born with FAS, a lifelong, physically and mentally disabling condition. FAS is characterized by (1) abnormal facial features, (2) growth deficiencies and (3) central nervous system (Central Nervous System) problems. Individuals with FAS may have problems with learning, memory, attention span, problem solving, speech and hearing. These problems often lead to difficulties in school and problems getting along with others. FAS is an irreversible condition that affects every aspect of an individual's life and the lives of his or her family. However, FAS is 100 percent preventable -- if a woman does not drink alcohol while she is planning to get or when pregnant. Alcohol in the mother's blood crosses the placenta freely and enters the embryo or fetus through the umbilical cord. The exact mechanism(s) by which alcohol damages the fetus and critical times of exposure are not known; however, exposure during the first trimester results in the structural defects (i.e., facial changes) characteristic of FAS, whereas the growth and CENTRAL NERVOUS SYSTEM disturbances could occur from alcohol use during any time in pregnancy.

IF a pregnant woman takes traditional brew/alcohol can it cause more damage to the fetus than beer or wine?

All types of alcohol can cause the same type of damage. The alcohol in a glass of wine, a beer or a wine cooler is the same as the alcohol in a shot of alcohol in local brew.

Is it OK for a woman to drink only during special cerebrations when she is pregnant?

Since there is no KNOWN safe amount of alcohol to drink during pregnancy, the best choice is not to drink at all, even during special occasions. Many people use non-alcoholic wines/ drinks as a substitute at special occasions where adults are drinking. If a woman drinks while pregnant, she puts her developing fetus at risk for a wide spectrum of adverse effects including spontaneous abortion; growth retardation; physical, mental, and behavioral abnormalities; facial abnormalities; and Central Nervous System impairment, such as developmental delay, speech or language delay, lower IQ and decreased head circumference. In the worst cases, prenatal exposure to alcohol may result in fetal death.

Should a woman worry if she drank before she knew she was pregnant? What should she do?

Regardless of the stage of pregnancy, a woman improves the chances of having a healthy baby if she stops drinking. Although there may be reason to worry, if drinking was heavy prior to recognizing the dangers, stopping the risky behaviour is the best possible advice for the remainder of the pregnancy. If a woman cannot stop drinking, get help.

Does smoking cause birth defects?

A Woman who smokes while she is pregnant has a greater chance of having a premature (early) birth, a small baby or a stillborn baby. If the mother smokes while pregnant, there is also an increased risk of the baby dying during the first year of life. Some types of birth defects have been linked to the mother’s smoking. Birth defects that may be increased when the mother smokes include: cleft lip, cleft palate, clubfoot, limb defects, some types of heart defects, gastroschisis (an opening in the muscles of the abdomen that allows the intestines to appear outside the body), and imperforate anus (there is no opening from the intestines to the outside of the body to allow stool or gas to be passed). Talk with your health care provider about ways to help you quit smoking if you are pregnant or can get pregnant.

Do prescription drugs cause birth defects?

Some prescription drugs cause birth defects and should never be taken if there is any chance that a woman is pregnant or could become pregnant while taking the drug. Drugs that are used to treat a serious or life-threatening illness should be avoided if possible. Prescription drugs known to cause birth defects include thalidomide (Thalomid) and isotretinoin (Accutane). However, women who could get pregnant or already pregnant should avoid taking drugs they buy on their own in clinics but in case of any complication they should explain to an obstetrician to help them understand about the risks and benefits of any drugs before taking them and then chose the right medication.

Do genetic factors play a role in causing birth defects?

Yes, some birth defects “run in the family.” Babies with certain types of birth defects may have an extra or a missing chromosome. Birth defects can also happen when just a piece of a chromosome is missing or if just an extra piece is added. Also, certain genes may make a fetus more sensitive to things that cause birth defects.

Pregnant women are given folic acid when they go for antenatal visits, what is the importance of these pills to the baby.

Folic acid pills, a B vitamin, aids in the formation of the brain and spine, which close by 28 days after conception thus preventing neural tube defects and a pregnant woman is encouraged to take 400mcg of folic acid every day. In women that have had a prior child with a brain or spine defect such as spina bifida, the recommended dose is increased to 4 milligrams daily. Experts advocate starting folic acid supplementation prior to pregnancy, especially when they had a prior child affected with spina bifida.

How can a poor pregnant woman in the village afford a balanced nutrition for her the baby to be healthy?

Eating well means eating a variety of healthy foods and also eating enough food. This combination helps a pregnant woman and her baby stay healthy and strong because it: helps a woman resist illness during her pregnancy and after the birth, keeps a woman’s teeth and bones strong, gives a woman strength to work, helps the baby grow well in the mother’s uterus, helps a mother recover her strength quickly after the birth and supports the production of plenty of good quality breast milk to nourish the baby.

The biggest cause of poor nutrition in pregnant mothers is poverty. However, it does not need one to be rich to eat a balanced diet but one can have it with little money. A very poor expecting couple can eat better by spending money wisely and not wasting what little they have. Some of the strategies to employ include; A father who buys alcohol, tobacco etc. could instead buy nutritious food, he could buy a hen to lay eggs. A mother who buys her children sweets or soda pop could instead buy eggs, beans or other low-cost, healthful foods. A couple can also carry out back yard farming where you can plant vegetables and green around the homes, even in tins or sacks packed with soil, it is easy to manage, needs less energy. These simple strategies can help a pregnant mother and her husband get the necessary food needed.

If a pregnant woman eats one type of food every day and makes sure she is satisfied can she also suffer from malnutrition.

Malnutrition refers to the lack of sufficient nutrients which are essential for the body’s normal functioning. The nutrient needed prior or during pregnancy; calcium, vitamin A, thiamine, niacin, riboflavin, ascorbic acid, vitamin D, vitamin B. folate, iron, protein and energy.  Eating one type of foods means that the pregnant women is getting only a few of the above specific nutrients hence missing out other nutrients and this shows she is suffering from micronutrient deficiency where she consumes enough food but does not consume enough of the specific nutrients she needs for the growth and function of the body parts. Therefore, she will not have enough nutrients to also support embryo growth. This increases the risk of gestational anemia, hypertension, miscarriages and fetal deaths during pregnancy, pre-term delivery and maternal mortality. For newborn, it can cause low birth weight, fetal intrauterine growth retardation that may have long life consequences on newborn development, quality of life and health care costs.

What groups of women are at a higher risk of having a baby with a birth defect?

Teenage mothers have a greater risk to have babies with low birth weight and neurological defects. Women over the age of 35 years have a higher chance of having children with Down’s syndrome which happens when there is an extra chromosome 21 (“trisomy 21”) than women who are younger. Pregnant women who use certain drugs. Also, women who smoke and use alcohol while pregnant have a higher risk of having a baby with certain birth defects. Women from families with a history of a certain birth defect have a higher chance of having a baby with a birth defect, women with chronic health concerns like diabetes.

What should be done by women before becoming or already pregnant in order to improve their chances of having a healthy child?

Eating a healthy diet and maintaining a healthy weight will increase the chances of minimizing problems during the pregnancy. A daily multivitamin with folic acid is beneficial.

Seeking preconception counselling so as to be helped to be ready for the pregnancy and be aware of the possible risks that can affect the baby.

Going for antenatal checkups for early diagnosis and treatment of the mother’s illnesses that can affect the fetus.

Women with medical conditions such as diabetes or hypertension should consult with their doctor to obtain good control of their blood sugars or blood pressure before becoming pregnant. If they are taking medication on a regular basis, they should discuss with their OB/GYN regarding potential risks to the pregnancy and whether it is recommended to change their medication prior to getting pregnant.  

Avoiding getting into contact with poisoned environment
Avoid smoking and taking alcohol



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