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January: National Birth Defects Prevention Month

Cheryl Lathrop

Last updated: November 22, 2016 3:35 pm

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The January 2014 theme for National Birth Defects Prevention Month is: “Birth defects are common, costly, and critical.”


Last year’s theme was: “Every 4 ½ minutes a baby is born with a birth defect.” 1 What a staggering statistic! According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 1 in every 33 babies (3%) is born with a birth defect.” 2 That covers common!


Each year, total hospital costs for U.S. children and adults with birth defects exceed $2.6 billion. 3


Birth defects account for more than 20% of all infant deaths. 4 Additionally, babies born with birth defects have a greater chance of illness and long term disability than babies without birth defects. 5

What is a birth defect? The CDC defines them as: “conditions present at birth that cause structural changes in one or more parts of the body. They can have a serious, adverse effect on health, development, or functional ability.” Some birth defects (e.g., cleft lip) are easy to see, but others need a special test for diagnosis (e.g., hearing loss).

Birth defects can vary from mild to severe. They can affect almost any part of the body changing how the body looks or works. The impact depends mostly on which organ or body part is involved—how much it is affected.

When do birth defects occur? Most birth defects occur in the first 3 months of pregnancy, when the organs of the baby are forming. However, some occur during the last six months of pregnancy as the tissues and organs continue to grow and develop.

What causes birth defects? Birth defects are thought to be caused by a complex mix of factors: genes, behaviors, and environment. According to the CDC, these women have a higher chance of having a child with a birth defect: 6

  • Women who take certain drugs, smoke, or drink alcohol during pregnancy.
  • Women with certain medical conditions before and during pregnancy (e.g., uncontrolled diabetes, obesity).
  • Women who take certain medications known to cause birth defects (e.g., thalidomide, isotretinoin).
  • Women who have someone in their family with a birth defect.
  • Women over the age of 35 years.

Your genes certainly aren’t under your control. And sometimes the environment isn’t either. But, certainly eating, drinking, and smoking are. As is whether or not you take drugs—either street drugs or prescription drugs.

In the 1950’s we found out the hard way that the drug thalidomide, prescribed for morning sickness, caused devastating birth defects. About 10,000 children worldwide were born with major malformations (e.g., severely malformed or missing arms and legs). 7 The most well-known defect is a severe shortening of the arms or legs with flipper-like hands or feet. A drug that causes abnormal development of the baby is called a teratogen.

Isotretinoin (first marketed as Accutane®) is used to treat severe acne. It can cause severe birth defects—even a small amount taken for a short time! According to the March of Dimes, birth defects include: 8

  • Hydrocephaly (enlargement of the brain)
  • Microcephaly (small head and brain)
  • Intellectual disabilities
  • Ear and eye abnormalities
  • Cleft palate and other facial abnormalities
  • Heart defects

In the United States a special procedure is required to obtain isotretinoin. The dispensing of isotretinoin in the US is controlled by an FDA-mandated website called iPLEDGE (a commitment to pregnancy prevention). Dermatologists register their patients before prescribing and pharmacists check the website before dispensing. The prescription may not be dispensed until both parties have complied. Women with the potential to bear children must commit to using two forms of contraception at the same time for the duration of isotretinoin therapy, as well as for the month immediately preceding and the month immediately following therapy. 9

Prenatal care—the care you get while you’re pregnant— is important as it keeps you and your baby healthy. 10 Use your prenatal checkups to ask your provider all your questions about pregnancy and your baby.



Additional information about this month is available at the NBDPN website.


  1. http://www.nbdpn.org/national_birth_defects_prevent.php 

  2. http://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/birthdefects/index.html 

  3. http://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/birthdefects/index.html 

  4. http://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/birthdefects/data.html 

  5. http://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/birthdefects/facts.html 

  6. http://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/birthdefects/facts.html 

  7. http://www.marchofdimes.com/pregnancy/thalidomide.aspx 

  8. http://www.marchofdimes.com/pregnancy/accutane-and-other-retinoids.aspx 

  9. https://www.ipledgeprogram.com/FAQ_Public.aspx 

  10. http://www.marchofdimes.com/pregnancy/prenatal-care.aspx