Entries in Birth Defects (6)


Birth Defects Plague Iraq, But Cause Unknown

iStockPhoto/Thinkstock(NEW YORK) -- The Iraq War may be over, but the casualties continue for Iraqi couples trying to have children without life-threatening birth defects.

An apparent rise in Iraqi birth defects has left parents, doctors and researchers scrambling for answers – and wondering whether there's a link between the war and babies born with deformities that often render them unable to survive until their first birthday.

"They [parents] feel desperate," Mozhgan Savabieasfahani, a reproductive toxicologist who used to work at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, told ABC News. She traveled to Iraq's Fallujah General Hospital in 2010 to research the birth defects and co-authored studies in 2010 and 2012. "One major problem we had was that there weren't enough families who had normal children, and therefore we ended up with fewer normal family studies."

Savabieasfahani and her colleagues concluded that many Iraqi babies were born with congenital heart defects, spina bifida and other deformities because their parents had high levels of lead, mercury and uranium levels in their hair, nails and teeth. They suggested that the toxins came from airborne pollutants released during the Iraq War.

"Toxic metals such as mercury (Hg) and Pb [lead] are an integral part of war ammunition and are extensively used in the making of bullets and bombs," it says in the results section of the study.

However, the U.S. Department of Defense believes the evidence is insufficient to determine whether war pollutants caused a rise in birth defects, said department spokeswoman Cynthia Smith. For example, researchers did not account for whether mothers had adequate nutrition or access to medical care during pregnancy, and they did not always consider whether the parents were cousins, she said.

"The studies have instead relied on the occurrence of conflict during specified years, and then presumed exposure of individuals to specific munitions," Smith told ABC News. "The studies have also presumed specific health effects from the claimed exposures without benefit of any scientific evidence proving the association of health effects with those exposures."

Savabieasfahani collected tissue samples from 56 families at Fallujah General Hospital to see whether parents of babies with birth defects had more lead and mercury in their bodies than parents of babies without birth defects. Savabieasfahani's co-author, Dr. Muhsin Al-Sabbak, collected similar data for 28 families at the Al Basrah Maternity Hospital, where he is a gynecologist and obstetrician.

They concluded that parents of children with birth defects had higher levels of lead, mercury and uranium than parents of normal children.

Savabieasfahani also wrote in her 2010 study that birth defects were present in 15 percent of all Fallujah births. Birth defects occur in about 3 percent of births in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

However, the Federal Ministry of Health of Iraq and the World Health Organization have yet to release their joint study exploring the prevalence of birth defects in Iraq. Its results are expected to be published this spring. The study is a response to smaller, independent studies about birth defects, and an increased number of birth defect reports submitted to the ministry, according to the World Health Organization's website.

Savabieasfahani said it was sometimes difficult to persuade parents to participate in her study because birth defects are a source of shame in Fallujah. As such, she thinks birth defects and miscarriages may be underestimated.

Al-Sabbak, who is based in Basrah, Iraq, told ABC News that he is sure that more of his patients have either given birth to babies with multiple birth defects or suffered multiple miscarriages, and that many of them lived in areas where they would have been exposed to pollution from the war.

One of Al-Sabbak's patients had 19 miscarriages, Savabieasfahani said.

"They're actually asking whether they should stop conceiving," Al-Sabbak said. "They do ask me, 'What am I going to do?' I don't have the answer."

Copyright 2013 ABC News Radio


Fertility Treatments May Raise Risk for Birth Defects, Study Says

iStockphoto/Thinkstock(NEW YORK) -- New research indicates that couples who undergo in vitro fertilization are more likely to have a baby with birth defects, Health Day reports.

One of the study's authors said the findings showed a significant link between the use of assisted reproductive technology, such as certain types of in vitro fertilization, and a higher risk of birth defects, but the reason behind the association is not exactly clear. She said infants conceived naturally had a 6.6 percent baseline rate of major birth defects, while infants born after IVF had a rate of 9 percent, and noted that there is a 3 percent rate of birth defects for the general population.

The study author said that the results do not prove that IVF causes birth defects, and should not cause more stress for couples struggling with infertility and seeking treatments.

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio


Pub Sells Pregnancy Tests to Curb Birth Defects

iStockphoto/Thinkstock(NEW YORK) -- Before ordering that much-desired mojito or martini, female patrons of a Minnesota pub can check to see if they’re pregnant.

Pub 500 in Mankato, a city south of Minneapolis-St. Paul, has a new test dispenser in the women’s restroom. The machine charges $3 per pregnancy test on a credit or debit card.

Sparing even one unborn child from alcohol-related birth defects or developmental disabilities makes the effort worthwhile, said Tom Frederick, co-owner of the bar.

“It was another worthy cause,” he said when asked about the dispenser. “We’re involved in all kinds of things in our local community.”

The machine, installed July 19, is the brainchild of Healthy Brains for Children, a nonprofit organization based in St. Paul that aims to reduce the number of children with learning and behavioral difficulties linked to alcohol exposure in the womb.

All money collected by the machine goes to the organization. “I don’t make a dime on the machine,” Frederick said. “We just gave them wall space.”

When a customer walks into the restroom, she will likely see the dispenser hanging to her right. “We’ve got a big mirror there — in the powder-your-nose area,” he said.

The crew posted a sign on the upper left of the machine to explain its presence in a bar. “A pregnant mother should not be drinking, and there are many cases where she may not even know that she is pregnant,” the sign reads, while acknowledging, “At first, we thought it was a strange idea, but quickly came to the conclusion of how this could be beneficial.”

Jody Allen Crowe, the organization’s executive director, said he was an occasional customer at the bar. His group has plans to install a hundred of the dispensers in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area.

“But the response has been so tremendous and international,” he said, that they may expand.

Based on self-reports among women ages 18 to 44, the CDC found an estimated 7.6 percent of pregnant women — one in 13 — used alcohol and 1.4 percent of pregnant women engaged in binge drinking.

A new dispenser will occupy half the space of the current one, which is about 27 inches high and 36 inches wide. Crowe said he expects prototypes of the new machine to become available within a month.

He co-founded Healthy Brains for Children in 2008, while director of a charter school in Rochester, Minn., after working 18 years on Native American reservations in Minnesota and Idaho as a teacher, principal and superintendent.  That’s where he said he saw the devastation caused by prenatal exposure to alcohol.

“There was such a need” to inform the public, he said. “So I shelved my educational career” and focused on this cause.

Alcohol consumption during pregnancy is a leading preventable cause of birth defects and developmental disabilities, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Based on self-reports among women ages 18 to 44, the CDC found an estimated 7.6 percent of pregnant women use alcohol and 1.4 percent of pregnant women engage in binge drinking. CDC analyzed 2006-2010 Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System data to approximate the prevalence of alcohol use and binge drinking among women of childbearing age. The statistics appeared July 20 in the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

An easily accessible and inexpensive pregnancy test in an establishment serving alcohol can help a woman make a healthy choice, said Dr. David Garry, who delivers babies at Montefiore Medical Center in New York and heads the Alcohol and Women Committee for the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.

He said there should be information posted about interpreting positive or negative test results, practicing safe sex and preventing Fetal Alcoholism Spectrum Disorder, or FASD.

“The pregnancy test alone will not necessarily alter FASD rates,” Garry said. Still, he added, “there is large potential for reduction of FASD through the opportunity to raise awareness and provide education to women in the high-risk setting of a bar or nightclub.”

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio


Fertility Methods May Raise Risk of Birth Defects, Study Says 

Jupiterimages/Thinkstock(NEW YORK) -- Babies conceived with infertility treatment methods are more likely to have certain birth defects than babies who are conceived naturally, according to a study published today in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Australian researchers looked at the medical records of nearly 300,000 babies born in Australia -- more than 4,000 of whom were conceived through an assisted fertility method -- to see if babies born using the various assisting methods were more likely to have birth defects than babies who were conceived naturally.

Eight percent of the babies conceived through assistance were born with birth defects such as heart, genital, kidney, lung and muscle problems, compared to nearly 6 percent of babies who were conceived naturally, the study found. Those conceived through fertility assistance were also more likely to have cerebral palsy.

More than 6 million women of childbearing age in the U.S. have difficulty getting pregnant or staying pregnant, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Intracytoplasmic sperm injection (ISI), a so-called assisted reproductive technology in which a single sperm is injected into a removed egg and then transferred back to the uterus was the most common type of method associated with birth defects, the study found. The oral hormone pill commonly known as Clomid also increased the risk for defects.

Nearly five percent of infants are conceived using fertility medication, according to the CDC.

Babies conceived through in vitro fertilization (IVF), which is the most common type of assisted reproductive technology, did not have a higher risk for birth defects. Low-dose hormones also did not raise risk.

An estimated 1 percent of all infants born in the U.S. every year are conceived using assisted reproductive technologies such as IVF and ISI, according to the CDC.

The number of women turning to assisted reproductive methods to help them conceive has skyrocketed over the last decade because more women are waiting until they're older to have their first baby.

The increased risk of birth defects may be more likely caused by the identified infertility rather than the assisted methods used to help women get pregnant, according to Dr. James Goldfarb, director of the Fertility Center at University Hospitals Case Medical Center in Cleveland.

"The majority of problems with IVF babies are because the patients undergoing the procedure are more susceptible to the problems rather than because of the IVF," said Goldfarb. "That's encouraging because we can say in the situation that you'll see a 2.5 percent higher chance of birth defects, but that risk could be the same even if done naturally."

Some women who undergo fertility treatments may be older or have reproductive complications that may make pregnancy more difficult.

After five miscarriages, Alicia Cooney, then age 35, and her husband turned to fertility treatments. It started with hormones but the couple soon moved on to ISI and IVF. a

"After three years of fertility treatments, there was a lot of anxiety," said Cooney. "We wanted to be parents. There was frustration and anxiety."

Cooney's first round of IVF led to yet another miscarriage. Cooney said she was never told about any potential risks associated with fertility treatments.

While previous studies suggest a slight increase in the risk of birth defects for babies conceived through assisted reproductive technologies, the risk is still extremely low.

"It would've made me a bit nervous to know that," said Cooney.

But then again, she said, she was determined to keep trying.

"I still would've done it," she said.

Now, with two sons 18 months apart, Cooney, 40, of Cleveland, says she is grateful that methods were able to help her stay pregnant.

"I always think about how hard it was to have them and how happy I am to have them," she said.

The risk of complications to a woman undergoing any type of fertility method is also extremely low, said Goldfarb.

The biggest risk to both the mother and infant is the increased chance of having twins or multiple babies, he said.

Babies born in multiple birth situations can be up to 8 times more likely to have a birth defect, including cerebral palsy, he said.

In this study, however, parents who became pregnant with twins or multiple babies had a smaller risk of birth defects than women who became pregnant with only one baby.

The method in which the embryo is prepared also affected whether the babies conceived were at risk for birth defects. In fresh embryo transfers, there was a higher risk of birth defects than using embryos that had been frozen.

Weaker embryos that go through the freezing process are less likely to survive, allowing only the stronger embryos to be implanted back into mother, according to the researchers.

The findings shouldn't discourage women from using fertility methods to help in getting pregnant, said Goldfarb. The chances of pregnancy are different for each woman, and the risks and benefits of fertility methods also varies, he said.

"The fact that the patient has had a problem getting pregnant only slightly increases the risk to having a healthy pregnancy, but going through IVF isn't going to raise that risk any further," he said.

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio


Risk of Stillbirth, Birth Defects Is Increased with Second-Hand Smoke

Ryan McVay/Thinkstock(NOTTINGHAM, England) -- A British study found that risk of stillbirth is increased by 23 percent and birthing a baby with defects by 13 percent when pregnant women are exposed to cigarette smoke at work or in the home.

Researchers at the University of Nottingham reviewed data fro 19 previous studies from around the world.  Studies were included from North America, South America, Asia and Europe and focused on non-smoking mothers-to-be, who experienced second-hand smoke in their home or work environments.

Their analysis of the data discovered an increased risk after exposure to more than 10 cigarettes per day.

But the study authors also note that while second-hand smoke increased the risk of stillbirth and birth defects, they found no heightened risk of miscarriage or newborn death from passive smoking.

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio 


Bowen Hammitt's Small Heart Is a Big Inspiration for His Family

File Photo Courtesy - Getty Images(ANN ARBOR, Mich.) -- Bowen Matthew Hammitt came into this world on Sept. 9, at 9 pounds, 7 ounces, with a wisp of light brown hair and a heart condition that threatened his survival.

"When he came out, I thought he would look different," says his mother, Sarah Hammitt, 31. "[But] he looked totally fine. So it was hard to see a baby that looked so beautiful and know that his insides weren't perfect. I kind of felt like, This isn't real. It couldn't be.'"

Bowen was born with Hypoplastic Left Heart Syndrome, a rare congenital defect in which the left side of the heart is dangerously underdeveloped. In babies with HLHS, the left side of the heart cannot pump blood, so the right side must supply both the lungs and the body. Without surgical intervention, the condition is fatal.

"Any parent would say that watching your child go through something like that is much worse than going through it yourself," says Bowen's father, Matt Hammitt, 31. "You want to take their place, but you can't. That's been the most difficult part for me."

On September 13th, four days after Bowen was born, he underwent his first open-heart surgery at C.S. Mott Children's Hospital in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The procedure successfully inserted a shunt into his heart and, after several hours at Bowen's bedside in intensive care, Sarah and Matt finally felt confident enough to go next door to their hotel room for some rest. A couple of hours later, the phone rang. "Two-thirteen a.m. I will never forget that time," says Matt.

Bowen's heart had stopped beating, and by the time the Hammitts reached the hospital, doctors and nurses were frantically trying to save his life. After about forty minutes, Sarah and Matt were losing hope. "They took us into another room," says Matt, "and we thought for sure he was gone." Sarah recalls she began to wonder how it was going to feel to be a mother who had lost a child. "We were just waiting for them to call out the time [of death]," she remembers. "I kept looking at the clock and, 'ok, when are they going to say it? Just say it.'"

Fortunately, the medical staff was eventually able to revive Bowen. "We were so confused," recalls Matt. "We didn't understand that after that long that they could stabilize a child on life support. [But] we found out his heart was beating, his lungs were working."

Throughout their difficult ordeal, the Hammitts have been sharing their experiences on a website they call "Bowen's Heart." What started as a place to keep friends and family up to date on Bowen's health, soon began to attract thousands of visitors who regularly check in to share stories and offer encouragement to the Hammitts and to each other. "We started discovering so much and experiencing so much growth through all of this that we just wanted to share that with people and show that, in a really dark time of life, there is hope," explains Matt. "All the good that has come out of it has been pretty amazing."

Sarah Hammitt says the blog also serves as a place to give meaning to Bowen's life. "We're not guaranteed any amount of time," she says. "So we were immediately giving him a place and a purpose."

"We wanted his life to make a difference," adds Matt, "no matter how long or short it would be."

Bowen spent the first ten weeks of his life in the hospital. But finally -- just in time for Thanksgiving -- Bowen was well enough to go home to Perrysburg, Ohio. Dressed in a black and grey striped outfit and clutching a stuffed alligator, Bowen got a standing ovation from the nursing staff as his parents carried him out to the car. Matt held Sarah closely, comforting her as her eyes filled with tears.

When their silver SUV pulled into the driveway an hour later, Bowen's big sisters, Emmy and Claire, were waiting outside, each with a teddy bear to present to their brother for his homecoming.

Bowen's second surgery is scheduled for February.

ABC News Radio