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Birth Defects

About one in every 33 babies is born with a birth defect. Not all birth defects can be prevented. But a woman can take steps to increase her own chance of having a baby with the best health possible.

What Are Birth Defects?

Birth defects are structural changes present at birth that can affect almost any part or parts of the body (e.g., heart, brain, foot). They may affect how the body looks, works, or both. Birth defects can vary from mild to severe. The well-being of each child affected with a birth defect depends mostly on which organ or body part is involved and how much it is affected. Depending on the severity of the defect and what body part is affected, the expected lifespan of a person with a birth defect may or may not be affected.

How Are Birth Defects Treated?

Children with birth defects often need special care and treatments. Because the symptoms and problems caused by birth defects vary, the treatments also vary. Possible treatments may include surgery, medicines, assistive devices, physical therapy, and speech therapy.

Often, children with birth defects need a variety of services and may need to see several specialists. The primary health care provider can coordinate the special care that the child needs.

Can birth defects be prevented?

Not all birth defects can be prevented. But there are things you can do before and during pregnancy to increase your chance of having a healthy baby:

  • Start prenatal care as soon as you think you might be pregnant, and see your health care provider regularly during pregnancy

  • Get 400 micrograms (mcg) of folic acid every day. If possible, you should start taking it at least one month before you get pregnant.

  • Don't drink alcohol, smoke, or use "street" drugs

  • Talk to your health care provider about any medicines you are taking or thinking about taking. This includes prescription and over-the-counter medicines, as well as dietary or herbal supplements.

  • Learn how to prevent infections during pregnancy

  • If you have any medical conditions, try to get them under control before you get pregnant

What Are Some of the Most Common Birth Defects?

  • Cleft lip or cleft palate

  • Heart defects, such as missing or misshaped valves

  • Abnormal limbs, such as a clubfoot

  • Neural tube defects, such as spina bifida, and problems related to the growth and development of the brain and spinal cord


Birth Defects Quick Facts:

  • An estimated 240 000 newborns die worldwide within 28 days of birth every year due to birth defects. Birth defects cause a further 170 000 deaths of children between the ages of 1 month and 5 years.

  • Birth defects can contribute to long-term disability, which takes a significant toll on individuals, families, health care systems and societies.

  • Nine of ten children born with a serious birth defect are in low- and middle-income countries.

  • As neonatal and under-5 mortality rates decline, birth defects become a larger proportion of the cause of neonatal and under-5 deaths.

  • The most common severe birth defects are heart defects, neural tube defects and Down syndrome.

  • Although birth defects may be the result of one or more genetic, infectious, nutritional or environmental factors, it is often difficult to identify the exact causes.

  • Some birth defects can be prevented. Vaccination, adequate intake of folic acid or iodine through fortification of staple foods or supplementation, and adequate care before and during a pregnancy are examples of prevention methods.


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