Many women around the world have had painful experiences of giving birth to abnormal or deformed children, they have asked questions like ‘why is my child suffering so much?’, ‘what happened to my child?’. According to the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention 2008, about 1 out of every 33 infants are born with a defect in the United States of America. The report also shows that every 4.5 minutes, a baby is born with a defect meaning that nearly 120,000 babies are affected by birth defects each year. In Nigeria, a report for a study done in a northern teaching hospital says that the prevalence of infant birth defects is between 2.1% to 5.1% of total delivery while in southern Nigeria, the prevalence is 15.9%.
WHO reports that more than 8 million birth defects and related disabilities occur yearly, worldwide. The body along with others observe World Birth Defects day every March 3, to raise awareness of this serious global problem and advocate for more surveillance, research, care and prevention measures to help babies and children.
With these facts clearly stated, your curiosity should have heightened by now to know exactly what the term Infant Birth Defects means. Let us get started with basic definitions first.
An Infant is a newborn child, incapable of any form of independence from its mother. A defect is a deviation from the normal or ideal figure, structure or condition that something should be.
Putting the definitions together, in non-technical language, we can say that infant birth defects are deviations from the normal or ideal conditions that a newborn child should be in physically, physiologically, mentally and otherwise. Infant Birth Defects are also known as congenital disorders. Birth defects are structural or functional abnormalities present at birth that cause physical or mental disability. They are the leading cause of deaths of infants during the first year of life.
There are two categories of infant birth defects. They are Structural birth defects and Functional or developmental birth defects. (Eunice Kennedy, National Institute of Child Health and Human Development). Structural birth defects are defects that affect body part structures and how they look. They are usually quite easy to notice. Examples are Clubfoot and Cleft lip
or Cleft palate. Club foot is also called talipes equinovarus. In Nigeria, it is rare with fewer than 100 thousand cases per year. (College of medicine, university of Ibadan).Club foot is a birth defect in which one or both feet are twisted out of shape or position. A child with clubfoot cannot stand with the sole of their foot flat on the ground. The foot points downwards, the heel is inverted and the forefoot twisted.
Functional or developmental birth defect are defects related to how a body part or system functions or operates, they are usually genetic disorders. A common example is Down Syndrome. Fragile X Syndrome, Prader Willi Syndrome, Muscular Distropy andHypothyroidism are other examples. Down syndrome is caused when abnormal cell division results in extra genetic material from chromosome 21. It can also occur because of
chromosomal rearrangement. Affected children share certain clinical features, including a characteristic flat facial appearance with slanting eyes, broad hands with short fingers and a single crease across the palm, malformed ears, eyes, with a speckled iris, short stature and hypotonia (reduced tension in muscles), some with a degree of mental retardation.
Child with Down syndrome
Many women all over the world are beginning to understand these defects and their causes, which would help to put both preventive and corrective measures in place as the case may be thereby reducing the prevalence in different parts of the world. Some of the most common causes of Infant Birth Defects are genetic or chromosomal problems, Infections, exposure to
medications, chemicals and other agents during pregnancy.
Some infections can put any pregnant woman at a high risk of giving birth to children with defects. For example, the Zika virus is known to cause Microcehaly in a child whose mother is infected by it. Microcephaly is a condition in which the brain and skull are smaller than normal.
Repeatedly, expecting mothers are warned against self-medicated drugs, over the counter prescriptions and intake of harmful substances like alcohol and illicit drugs like marijuana during pregnancy, the risks cannot be overemphasized. A common example of drugs that out them at risk is tetracycline, which is known to cause teeth colouration in infants. The child
would have an almost yellow teeth colouration as opposed to the normal off-white and this could affect the child emotionally as he grows up. Alcohol is very injurious to developing foetus. There is no safe level or percentage that can be taken and so intake of it should be stopped during pregnancy.
Can birth defects be treated?
Yes, they can. Treatment of birth defects vary and are dependent on the condition and severity level. Some affect the child for the rest of their life while some may be corrected before or shortly after birth. Medications can be used to treat some or only reduce the risk of complication from some defects. The medication may be given to the mother during pregnancy
to correct the defect before birth. In some cases like clubfoot, treatment is initially by physiotherapy, which involves putting on plaster casts and braces for the child in his early years to help him correct the bone structure when it’s still tender. Surgical correction will only be done when the physiotherapy treatment fails. For other defects, surgeries may be the only
option available, like heart defects and physical effects like Cleft lip.
Now that many women are becoming more aware of Infant Birth Defects, there have been more responses and activities geared towards the prevention, management and treatment of these defects. Expecting mothers are expected to go for regular prenatal check-ups and programmes that will serve to enlighten them on the dos and don’ts during pregnancy. Young, unmarried women are also strongly advised to attend such programmes where they will be enlightened on best health practices, healthy eating habits, causes, symptoms, prevention and treatment of Infant Birth Defects. The mysteries of these defects are unfolding rapidly and people are
beginning to pay more attention, the spreading knowledge of infant Birth Defects will in the end help to reduce the prevalence of infant defects and deaths.
WHO, World Defects Day
CDC, Infants Birth Defects, Jan 5, 2006
Eunice Kennedy Shriver, birth defects, NICHD, Sept 1, 2017