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Some birth defects are preventable

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Approximately three percent of the babies born each year in Texas are born with birth defects.

Health care providers at the Texas Teratogen Information Service Pregnancy Risk Line, a non-profit based at the University of North Texas in Denton aims to educate women about exposures during pregnancy and breastfeeding.

“What we know is that a portion of these birth defects are out of our control. However, what’s frustrating is that some of these defects are preventable, but many women simply don’t know which measures to take,” said Lori Wolfe, Genetic Counselor at UNT and program director of TTIS Pregnancy Risk Line.

“It’s crucial we educate all women in order to give them the best chances of having a healthy baby,” she added.

In honor of National Birth Defects Prevention Month, which is recognized during January each year, TTIS counselors are stepping up efforts to help educate the public.

Counselors, who provide Texas women answers to questions about exposures during pregnancy and lactation through a toll-free hotline, (800) 733-4727, and website, www.ttis.unt.edu, have compiled a list of a few of the preventable causes of some of the most common birth defects.

Neural Tube Defects and Folic Acid Supplementation
Neural tube defects are malformations of the spinal cord that are serious and can be life-threatening. Two of the most common neural tube defects are spina bifida and anencephaly, and these occur in about 1 in every 1,000 live births.  Getting enough folic acid, and following recommendations to take a multivitamin with folic acid or a folic acid supplement containing at least 400 mcg daily during all of the years that a woman is capable of becoming pregnant can prevent up to 70% of these defects.  Because the neural tube closes in the first month after conception, a time when many women do not yet realize they are pregnant, it is important for women, in addition to a healthy diet, to be taking supplements before pregnancy.  That is why the recommendation is to take supplements throughout the childbearing years.

Heart Defects and Maternal Obesity
Heart defects are some of the most common malformations. The various types of errors in the formation of the heart may occur in as many as 1 in 100 live births.  Mothers who are obese at the time they become pregnant (Body Mass Index >30) seem to have an increased chance of having a baby with several kinds of birth defects, including heart defects.  If mothers can reduce body weight by making healthy lifestyle changes prior to becoming pregnant, this can help prevent heart and other defects in their baby.

Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) and Maternal Drinking
“It’s thought that Fetal Alcohol Syndrome is the most common recognizable cause of mental retardation,” said Dr. Kenneth Lyons Jones, who founded the CA teratogen service and was one of the doctors who first identified FAS in 1973.  Children with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome are born small, have problems with learning and behavior, and may have other birth defects.  “It’s completely preventable by avoiding alcohol during pregnancy,” he added.  This means that women who have the potential to become pregnant can prevent having a child affected by alcohol by modifying their alcohol drinking habits prior to becoming pregnant.  Once a woman knows she is pregnant, she can prevent later effects of alcohol on the baby’s growing brain by avoiding alcohol through the remainder of the pregnancy and during breastfeeding.

“This list is just the beginning,” said Wolfe. “There are so many things women can do during pregnancy to prevent certain birth defects, such as avoiding illicit drugs and cigarettes, getting early prenatal care to address management of chronic diseases such as diabetes and hypertension.  The TTIS Pregnancy Health Information Line is here to help provide as much information to Texas women as possible,” she added.

TTIS’ national affiliate, The Organization of Teratology Information Specialists (OTIS) has partnered with the National Birth Defects Prevention Network (NBDPN) to provide a complete list of resources to promote Birth Defect Prevention Month and can be found at NBDPN.org.

This year’s birth defects awareness campaign theme is “Medication Use Before, During and After Pregnancy.” In addition, OTIS has an extensive list of fact sheets in English and Spanish that includes various medications and their effects during pregnancy and breastfeeding. These can be found at otispregnancy.org.

Questions or concerns from women in Texas about other exposures during pregnancy and breastfeeding can be directed to the TTIS Pregnancy Risk Line, at (800) 733-4727 or online at www.ttis.unt.edu.

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