Birth Defects: Let's Prevent As Many As Possible

By Sarah Zimmerman

03 March 2017

SarahAfter years of random bouts of severe abdominal pain, I was diagnosed with a birth defect last December. This is odd news to receive when you are much closer to retirement age than the legal voting age.

A CT scan in the emergency room showed a malrotation, meaning my intestines are not arranged as they should be. With this, my guts easily get tied up in knots and cause partial but painful bowel obstructions. Thankfully, this always untangled before any permanent damage was done.

I was eventually referred to a specialist who has treated adults with malrotation symptoms. It normally presents problems in childhood, so an adult case is unusual. In February she performed laparoscopic surgery to remove tissue that was contributing to the tanglement. I will have to eat carefully, but I should not return to the emergency room for this.

Because I work for the Food Fortification Initiative, I know that 400 micrograms of folic acid a day before women conceive and in the early days of pregnancy greatly reduces the chance that the baby will have a severe birth defect of the brain or spine. I also know that fortifying flour with folic acid increases the intake of this essential B vitamin and lowers the prevalence of these devastating birth defects. The part I do not yet understand is why some countries do not implement this cost-effective intervention that has been used for more than 20 years around the world.

Unlike spina bifida and other birth defects that limit a person’s mobility, my invisible problem never interfered with a job application or social acceptance or college admission. Also, I have access to great medical care. Children with birth defects in places like the rural African village where I was a Peace Corps volunteer are not so fortunate.

As we say in today’s campaign for World Birth Defects Day, birth defects are common, costly, and critical. While the cause of some birth defects, like mine, remain a mystery, let’s prevent those we can and care for people affected by the birth defects that are unavoidable.