People across the nation have been shocked by Brazil’s Zika epidemic, as a virus linked to major birth defects has swept through the South American country and made its way further north. But birth defects seem to be growing in their prevalence here in the United States, too. On January 22, 2016, the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention released a study on the rising incidence of gastroschisis, an abdominal wall defect, in the 14 states that currently track birth defects pro-actively.
Gastroschisis Rates Shot Up Between 2005 & 2012
Covering only 29% of all US pregnancies, these tracking programs provide medical researchers a view on trends in birth defects and, while limited, the view isn’t good right now. Between 2005 and 2012, the rate of gastroschisis increased by 3.1% every year for white mothers under 20, and a staggering 7.9% per year for black mothers below the age of 20. This is the continuation of a trend observed in the decade before; the incidence of gastroschisis doubled between 1995 and 2005.
Overall, that’s an increased risk of 263% for non-Hispanic black women under 20 over just 7 years. Babies born with gastroschisis have portions of their intestines protruding through the abdominal wall, almost always through a hole near the belly button. The condition uniformly requires surgical intervention, and raises a child’s risk for further complications and death.
Young women are already at an increased risk for having babies with gastroschisis, but no one knows yet why the rate has grown by leaps and bounds over the last 2 decades. Speaking with CNN, Coleen Boyle, director of the CDC’s National Center on Birth Defects, said: “it concerns us that we don’t know why more babies are being born with this serious defect. 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.”
What’s Behind The Increase?
Risks for the defect, however, seem plentiful, including the age of the mother. But teen births have actually decreased over the same period, so that rules out a rise in teen pregnancies as the cause. Certain infections may cause an increase in a mother’s risk, as can poor nutrition. Women who “change paternity,” according to the CDC, have children with two or more different partners are also at an increased risk during subsequent pregnancies.
None of these potential risk factors are being implicated in the current discussion of gastroschisis. In fact, the only thing being highlighted is how inadequately we understand birth defects in the first place, a problem largely neglected by the federal government. In the gastroschisis study, CDC researchers point out glaring gaps in state records. One theory for the increase even suggests that we’re simply tracking gastroschisis more accurately than we used to. By that logic, the birth defect isn’t becoming more prevalent, it’s just that we missed a lot of cases in past years.