Health Department Encourages Screenings to Reduce the Risk for Birth Defects

The Department of Health, with the goal of ensuring a healthy life for all Pennsylvanians, is reminding everyone of the importance of newborn screening and highlighting the many ways that some birth defects can be prevented. Birth defects are the leading cause of death in children under age 1 and can cause significant grief and stress for families that endure them.

“Birth defects are serious conditions that can impact a child for life and also can be deadly,” Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine said. “There are a number of steps a pregnant or soon-to-be pregnant mother and her family can take to reduce the chances of their child developing a birth defect. The department is committed to educating Pennsylvanians about behaviors that can help prevent health concerns.”

Nationally, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that birth defects affect nearly one in every 33 babies born each year. Birth defects account for more than 20 percent – and are the leading cause – of all infant deaths. Babies who are born with a birth defect have a greater chance of becoming sick and developing a long-term disability than those born without birth defects.

There have been thousands of birth defects identified and the causes for many of them are unknown. These defects, which are present at birth, include when part of the body is missing, not shaped or working properly, infections the baby is born with, and those birth defects caused by environmental factors. These can cause physical or mental disability, or even death. Not all birth defects are preventable.

Birth defects develop before a baby is born, with most occurring in the first three months of the pregnancy when the baby’s organs are forming. Birth defects are believed to be caused by a complex mix of factors that include our genes, our behaviors and things in the environment.

To reduce the risk of birth defects, a woman can take the following steps before and during pregnancy:

  • Take 400 mcg of folic acid every day, starting at least one month before getting pregnant;
  • Don’t drink alcohol, smoke, or use “street” drugs;
  • Talk to a health care provider about taking any medications, including prescription and over-the-counter medications and dietary or herbal supplements. Also talk to a doctor before stopping any medications that are needed to treat health conditions;
  • Learn how to prevent infections during pregnancy; and
  • If possible, be sure any medical conditions are under control before becoming pregnant. Some conditions that increase the risk for birth defects include diabetes and obesity.
  • Know that help is available for those enduring the anxiety and stress of birth defects. Family members should not be afraid to reach out for help.

Other factors that can increase the risk of a child developing a birth defect include:

  • Women who take certain medications that are known to cause birth defects, such as isotretinoin (a drug used to treat severe acne);
  • Women who have someone in their family with a birth defect. To learn more about your risk of having a baby with a birth defect, you can talk with a clinical geneticist or a genetic counselor; and
  • Women over the age of 35 years.

In Pennsylvania, a number of birth defects are screened for as part of the newborn screening process.

Families and caregivers of children with special needs, including birth defects, can sign up for the Special Kids Network, a statewide information and referral resource. This program provides families with support, up-to-date information and referrals to statewide agencies and organizations that serve children with special health care needs.

Anyone enduring the pain of birth defects should not hesitate to reach out for help. Governor Tom Wolf’s recent “Reach Out PA: Your Mental Health Matters” initiative encourages all Pennsylvanians to make mental well-being a priority in your health care. If you or someone you know if is in need of mental health care, please visit mentalhealth.gov/get-help for various resources available to you.