An increasing rate of birth defects have surfaced involving babies born with some of their intestines and even organs on the outside of their bodies, according to federal health officials, who indicate the cause remains a mystery.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention(CDC) published a study in the current issue of the agency’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report on Thursday, warning that cases of abdominal wall birth defects, known as gastroschisis, have doubled over the last two decades, and there is no clear answer about why.
In cases of gastroschisis, babies are born with their intestines on the outside of their bodies, extruded through a hole in the abdominal wall. Some cases also involve the stomach and liver as well and the condition can be life threatening.
Surgery is required to treat the condition, and even then it often results in children with eating and digestive problems.
The CDC researchers looked at data from 14 states, comparing the prevalence of gastroschisis among women who gave birth from 1995 to 2005, to rates among women who gave birth from 2006 to 2012. However, the CDC researchers said more research is needed to determine what is causing these birth defects.
“It concerns us that we don’t know why more babies are being born with this serious birth defect,” Dr. Coleen Boyle, director of CDC’s National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities, said in a press release. “Public health research is urgently needed to figure out the cause and why certain women are at higher risk of having a baby born with gastroschisis.”
The CDC estimates that, currently, about 2,000 infants are born with gastroschisis each year. According to a 2005 study, women under the age of 20 are more likely to have a baby with gastroschisis than older women, and white teenage girls had a higher rate than that of black teenage mothers.
Since 1995 the rate has increased among all age groups of women, doubling overall according to the CDC. African-American women have seen the largest increase; 263% from 1995 to 2012. The agency notes that most cases still occur in mothers younger than 20.
“Gastroschisis is associated with young maternal age, with the highest prevalence among mothers aged <20 years; however, significant increases in prevalence were seen in all age groups during 2006-2012 compared with 1995-2005,” the researchers concluded. “The greatest increases in prevalence occurred among younger, black mothers, but the prevalence in black mothers remains lower than in white and Hispanic mothers.”
The lack of information means that doctors cannot tell women what they can do to avoid the problem. They do not know if certain vitamins or nutrients should be focused on, or if there are specific chemicals or medications to be avoided. In some cases, research has suggested there may be a genetic propensity, but it is unclear how strongly genetics plays a role.
“The continued increase in age-adjusted prevalence and the pace of the increase suggests that unidentified risk factors might be contributing,” the CDC researchers warned. “Identification of these risk factors is needed to inform public health interventions and reduce prevalence. Ongoing surveillance is essential to monitor any further increases in prevalence.”