Birth defects are common, costly, and critical.
Common: Every 4 ½ minutes in the United States, a baby is born with a birth defect.
Costly: Hospital costs for children and adults with birth defects exceeds $2.6 billion. That does not include outpatient expenses.
Critical: Birth defects cause 1 in every 5 deaths during the first year of life. They can result in lifelong challenges and disabilities.
As Birth Defects Prevention Month draws to a close, let’s recap what we know and look at steps that can be taken to prevent them.
Preconception and pregnancy planning
We know that it essential for a woman to take an active role in planning her pregnancy. If you are thinking of having a baby or if you may want to have children sometime in the future, it is important to make a PACT: plan ahead, avoid harmful substances, choose a healthy lifestyle, and talk to your doctor. You can read more here.
Changing a few behaviors now can make a big difference when you are ready to have a baby. It is best to get any preexisting medical conditions, such as diabetes and high blood pressure, under control before pregnancy. Some medications, such as opioid-based prescription pain medications, are not safe to use when you are pregnant. All of these concerns can be discussed with your doctor during a preconception checkup.
Folic acid fortification
It is well known that taking 400 micrograms of folic acid every day can help to reduce the risk of neural tube defects or NTDs (disorders of the brain and spine). Since the US mandated folic acid fortification of enriched cereal grain products in 1998, the rates of NTDs have decreased by 35%. That means that there are 1,300 fewer NTDs each year as a result of fortification. And that translates into an annual cost savings of approximately $508 million.
State surveillance systems record the number of babies born with a birth defect each year. The information gained from these surveillance systems furthers research on the causes of birth defects. The data also helps researchers to better understand which populations are at highest risk for specific birth defects. This information can then be used by public health professionals, policymakers, and health care providers to implement prevention strategies.
The March of Dimes is funding research to understand the causes of birth defects and to develop new ways to prevent and treat them. Some March of Dimes grantees are studying basic biological processes of development. A more advanced look at the process of development will help reveal what can go wrong along the way. Others researchers are conducting clinical studies aimed at finding ways to prevent or treat specific birth defects.
Birth Defects Prevention Month may be coming to an end, but there is still a lot of work to do. Go to the National Birth Defects Prevention Network to learn more.