What are Birth Defects?

A healthy baby is what all parents pray and wish for. But then there might be cases when the child is born with certain conditions, often called birth defects.

Birth defects are defined as abnormalities of structure, function, or body metabolism that are present in the child at birth. These abnormalities may lead to mental or physical disabilities or can be fatal. There are more than 4,000 different known birth defects ranging from minor to serious, and although many of them can be treated or cured, they are the leading cause of infant mortality in the first year of life.

Reasons for Birth Defects

  • Structural defectsare those that result when a specific body part is missing or formed incorrectly or when there is an inborn problem in body chemistry. The most common type of major structural defects are heart defects, which affect one in 100 babies in the United States. Some other common structural defects include spina bifida and hypospadias, a condition in which the opening of the male urethra (where urine exits from the penis) is in the wrong place. Mothers can help reduce the chance of babies developing spina bifida by taking folic acid regularly before becoming pregnant and throughout the first trimester.
  • Metabolic defects affect one in 3,500 babies and usually involve a missing or incorrectly formed enzyme (one of the proteins necessary for processing chemical substances in the body). This type of defect can be harmful or even fatal to the child, but doesn’t usually cause any visible abnormalities in the child. Examples include Tay-Sachs, a fatal disease that affects the central nervous system, and phenylketonuria (PKU), which affects the way the body processes protein.
  • Defects caused by congenital infections result when a mother gets an infection before or during the pregnancy. Examples of infections that can cause birth defects are rubella (German measles), cytomegalovirus (CMV), syphilis, toxoplasmosis, Venezuelan equine encephalitis, parvovirus, and, rarely, chicken pox.
  • Other causes of birth defects include alcohol abuse, smoking and other such activities that pose a certain risk to the pregnant mother.

Though many of them are quite rare, a few of the above diseases can be prevented if a mother takes precautions and maintains a healthy pregnancy.

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