Every year an estimated 7,9 million children, six percent of total births worldwide, are born with a serious birth defect

World Birth Defects Day (WBDD) is a day observed on 3 March. Besides the very important aim of improving the health and quality of life of those affected by congenital conditions, one of the main goals of this annual awareness day is to share what is already known about how to prevent birth defects1.

There are many types of birth defects

There are many types of birth defects, which are also known as congenital anomalies, congenital disorders or congenital conditions1, the most common of these severe defects are heart defects, neural tube defects and Down syndrome2. Every year an estimated 7,9 million children, six percent of total births worldwide, are born with a serious birth defect3.

Neural tube defects (NTDs) occur when the spinal cord fails to close properly4. The most common neural tube defect is spina bifida which can occur anywhere along the spine if the neural tube does not close all the way, which can result in the backbone that protects the spinal cord not forming and closing as it should. This often results in damage to the spinal cord and nerves5.

The most serious neural tube defect is anencephaly, which is when a baby is born without part of its skull and brain. Babies born with anencephaly will eventually die4. Fortunately, some congenital disorders can be prevented2, particularly neural tube defects3.

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Fortunately, some congenital disorders can be prevented

Folate (vitamin B-9) is important in red blood cell formation and for healthy cell growth and function6. This nutrient is crucial during early pregnancy to reduce the risk of these birth defects of the brain and spine. The synthetic form of folate is folic acid6. There is overwhelming scientific evidence linking an increased intake of synthetic folic acid to a reduced risk of neural tube defects3.

In fact, research indicates that at least half the cases of neural tube defects could be prevented if women consumed sufficient folic acid before conception and during early pregnancy3, with some estimates stating that consuming enough folic acid (at least 400 micrograms per day) can reduce certain birth defects of the brain and spinal cord by more than 70 percent4.

Folate is found naturally mainly in dark green leafy vegetables, beans, peas and nuts. Fruits rich in folate include oranges, lemons, bananas, melons and strawberries6. Many cereals and pastas are also fortified with folic acid6.

Taking a prenatal vitamin, containing at least 400 micrograms of folic acid daily4, ideally starting three months before conception, can help ensure that women get enough of this essential nutrient6.

Other steps include regular check ups and prenatal care, not drinking alcohol, taking recreational drugs or smoking

While not all birth defects can be prevented, there are certain things that a woman can do before and during her pregnancy to increase her chances of having a healthy baby. Besides getting 400 micrograms (mcg) of folic acid every day before falling pregnant, other steps include regular check ups and prenatal care, not drinking alcohol, taking recreational drugs or smoking, preventing infections where possible, and checking with a healthcare provider about any medications they may be taking or thinking about taking, whether these are prescription, over-the-counter medications or even herbal8.

Please remember to speak to a doctor, pharmacist or gynaecologist about what supplements to take before and during pregnancy.

For more information, go to https://pregomega.co.za/

References:

  1. World Birth Defects Day (WBDD) – Why a WBDD movement? (2020) at https://www.worldbirthdefectsday.org/why-a-wbdd-movement/ (website accessed on 9 February 2020)
  2. World Health Organization – Congenital Anomalies (September 2016) at https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/congenital-anomalies (website accessed on 9 February 2020)
  3. March of Dimes Birth Defects Foundation. Global Report on Birth Defects (2006)
  4. New York State. Folic Acid: The Vitamin That Helps Prevent Birth Defects (April 2007) at https://www.health.ny.gov/publications/1335/ (website accessed on 9 February 2020)
  5. CDC. What is Spina Bifida? (2019) at https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/spinabifida/facts.html (Website accessed on 23 February 2020)
  6. Mayo Clinic. Folate (Folic Acid) (October 2017) at https://www.mayoclinic.org/drugs-supplements-folate/art-20364625 (website accessed on 9 February 2020)
  7. IMS: TPM Data (A11A, A11E, V6D, V3X/Constructed Class). MAT December 2019
  8. CDC. What are birth defects? (December 2019) https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/birthdefects/facts.html (website accessed on 9 February 2020)