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Rebecca Fox: Rising birthrates among older women means the risks of birth defects has increased in the United States. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says babies born with birth defects have a greater chance of illness and long term disability than babies without birth defects. But there are some strategies women can use to minimize their chance of having a child with physical challenges or developmental disabilities. ICYous medical editor Dr. Mona Khanna joins us now with some tips on prevention. And Dr. Mona first of all, what exactly is a birth defect?
Dr. Mona Khanna: Well, they're actually quite common Rebecca. One out of 33 babies have birth defects which means there is a problem with their parents or the function of their body at birth. It could be something as simple like having a cleft lip where this area of the body isn't completely developed normally. It could be something as simple as hearing loss which you can't see but which would be considered a birth defect usually noticed within the first year.
Rebecca Fox: Are most babies that are born with birth defects, do they come from a family with histories of them?
Dr. Mona Khanna: It almost seems like you would think that that’s true and while there is an increased risks if you have a family history of birth defects or if you have a personal history, in other words, if the mother has had a child born previously with a birth defect or if the mother is over the age of 35. You do have increased risks of having a child with the birth defect. However, most children who are born with birth defects are born to parents who don’t have any of those risk factors.
Rebecca Fox: What options do parents have if they know that they’re having a child with birth defects?
Dr. Mona Khanna: Well, the first thing you want to do is actually even before you become pregnant, you want to start to think about this and protect yourself against having a child with birth defects, it just simply because of the challenges those children pose.
The first thing is when you are thinking about becoming pregnant, if you can have 400 micrograms of—called folic acid. Now, that’s one of the B vitamins. It’s a nutrient. And basically, it’s found in fortified foods such as breads and cereals. And you need to have that amount of folic acid everyday for at least three months before conception, before you even get pregnant. So, that’s an important nutrient to have in your system to prevent a certain type of birth defect. Now, that birth defect is called a Neural Tube Defect, an example of it is Spina Bifida. So, that’s the first thing you should do is when you're thinking about becoming pregnant, make sure you are healthy enough and you start to have enough folic acid.
When you are pregnant, you want to make sure you're not going to be engaging in any lifestyle behaviors that will increase your risk of birth defects. For example, alcohol abuse. If you drink alcohol pretty much almost any amount when you're pregnant, you are increasing the risk of having a child who will have some defects. Now, the most serious of those is if you completely indulge in alcohol, you could have a child who has what we call Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, which is a combination of physical, characteristics, IE deformities and some mental health challenges.
If you smoke, you are at risk of having a child who is lower birth weight than normal and that can be accompanied by a host of other problems including developmental disabilities.
And if you use a list of drugs, you are putting yourself and your child at risk of having birth defects. Take your prenatal vitamins when you’re pregnant. And of course, there are some other things you can do once you raised you're awareness of possibly having a child with birth defects.
Rebecca Fox: So, the best prevention is basically taking care of your health.
Dr. Mona Khanna: Taking care of your health. Now, if you do become pregnant and this is a concern to you especially for women over the age of 35, there are several things you can do.
First of all, you get a blood test to check for alpha fetoprotein levels. Now, this is a standard blood test that you're Ob-gyn is going to do anyway which underscores the importance of prenatal care. And this will check for an increased risk of having a child with a Neural Tube Defect like Spina Bifida that we mentioned before. So, the alpha fetoprotein level is a marker essentially for a child who might have this deficiency. Before about 12 weeks, before about 16 weeks which is three to four months, you can have Chorionic Villi Sampling or Amniocentesis done. This is where the doctor will extract a small amount of fluid from the uterus and look at that fluid. And from looking at that fluid, you can see the chromosomes of the developing child and you can tell whether or not the child has Down Syndrome. So, that’s another option as to identify whether or not you may be having a child with birth defects. The ultrasound is a test which most pregnant women have and that can also identify birth defects at a very, very early stage.
If you were at a point where you will be having a child who has birth defects, you would want to know your options. And of course, the first option is to eliminate the pregnancy. And that’s before a certain period of time. And then the second option is to be able to handle the pregnancy and then prepare yourself for after the child is born, if you want to give the child up for adoption or place the child at an organization that can take care of him, you want to be absolutely prepared. Does your health insurance covers special services for children with birth defects or physical challenges, mental challenges? Are those services offered in your area? You just want to be able to prepare yourself, so that when something happens, if it happens, you can handle it the best way you can. And the most important thing for the parents is by knowing early, they can prepare themselves psychologically.
Rebecca Fox: Dr. Mona, thank you very much for this information.
And you could find more information on birth defects and pregnancy on ICYOU.com. For ICYOU on topic, I'm Rebecca Fox.
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