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National Birth Defects Prevention: Why Do Defects Happen?

Written by Berkowitz

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January is National Birth Defect Prevention Month. It is a time to bring awareness about the common causes of birth defects, but also steps parents and healthcare providers can take to reduce the number of infants born each year with birth defects.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), every 4.5 minutes in the United States an infant is born with a birth defect. That comes out to 120,000 birth defects each year. Sadly, birth defects are common and 1 out of 33 infants are born with some type of defect.

A defect is any structural change at birth or during development that affects the infant, such as a disability, brain, heart, or other organ failure. A child’s well-being and lifespan are affected by these defects.

How Common Are Birth Defects?

Birth defects are common and they are structural or functional abnormalities present at birth. Sometimes these defects can be detected before the baby is born, while other times it takes years after the birth to realize that a defect is present. Sadly, defects are the leading cause of death in infants before they reach their first birthday.

Birth defects are typically caused by genetic issues, including chromosomal errors, but they can also be influenced by environmental factors and medical negligence.

What Is a Birth Defect?

A defect is an abnormality that can be fatal in some cases. Researchers have found thousands of various types of defects, and they are the leading cause of death in infants.

Currently, these thousands of defects are categorized into two main types: functional and structural.

What Is a Structural Defect?

A structural defect is one that affects the infant’s body parts. These can include physical abnormalities such as a left lip or palate. Other times they affect organs, such as a heart defect, missing valves, limb disfigurement, or a club foot. Some defects can be corrected through surgery, while others are not correctable.

Another type of structural defect is neural tube defects, which include spina bifida. These issues affect the child’s brain and spinal cord development and occur during fetal stages.

What Is a Functional Defect?

Functional defects affect how the body or system component works. These can lead to developmental delays or premature deaths.

Some functional defects that are common in the United States include, but are not limited to:

  • Nervous System or Brain Dysfunction – These may include learning disabilities, retardation, behavioral problems, speech and language complications, convulsions, or issues with movement. Some examples of a nervous system defect could include Autism or Down Syndrome.
  • Sensory Defects – A sensory defect includes speech, visual problems, or even hearing loss.
  • Metabolic Disorders – Metabolic disorders include processes of the body that affect chemical reactions, including the body’s inability to rid itself of chemical materials. An example of this type of disorder is phenylketonuria (PKU). Infants are now tested for this condition at birth to ensure that they do not have it.
  • Degenerative Disorders – A degenerative disorder is a condition that is not typically noticed at birth. Instead, the infant’s health will slowly decline. For example, they may have Rett Syndrome or muscular dystrophy, which is degenerative but could take months or weeks to appear.

What Causes Birth Defects in the United States?

Birth defects come from various sources, but typically result from genetics, lifestyle choices of the pregnant mother, infection, exposure from chemicals or mediations, or a combination of these issues.

Genetic Defects

Genetic defects are one of the more common causes of a birth defect, and these can come from the mother or father. The abnormalities are passed onto the unborn child, and in come cases a gene may be missing or flawed at the time of conception. A defect could be in the family history or just from one parent.

Non-Genetic Defects

Non-genetic defects are those that arise outside of heredity. For example, a mother’s lifestyle choices like drinking, smoking, or using recreational drugs could lead to a defect – and these defects are preventable.

Other times a patient could be prescribed a medication that is unsafe during pregnancy, which in turn leads to a defect.

Infections are another source of non-genetic defects. Sometimes when a mother has a serious infection that is untreated it can affect the infant’s development.

What Increases the Likelihood of a Birth Defect?

Pregnant women all carry a risk of having a baby with a birth defect, but there are certain actions and risk factors that may increase the likelihood of this occurring. Some conditions that can increase the risk of a baby with birth defects born include:

  • A family history of birth defects
  • Family history of serious genetic disorders
  • Drug use, alcohol use, or smoking during pregnancy
  • Inadequate prenatal care
  • Untreated infections or medical conditions
  • High-risk medications used during pregnancy
  • Maternal age of 35 years or more

When Is a Birth Defect an Issue of Malpractice?

Not all birth defects are malpractice. But when an infant is born with a medical defect because the mother’s physician failed to disclose, diagnose, or treat ailments – the parents of that infant may be able to file a lawsuit for compensation.

Studies have shown that pesticides, lead, heavy metals, certain paints, and toxic substances can cause birth defects. Unfortunately, there are also studies that have yet to find the exact cause of defects from a genetic standpoint. Therefore, if you have a baby born with a defect, it is best that you consult an attorney to see if your case might qualify for compensation.

When Does a Defect Apply to a Lawsuit?

Genetic or not, physicians have an obligation to their patients to ensure that their child is born as healthy as possible. When they fail to fulfill their obligation as a medical care provider, they can be held liable in court.

Some instances where a birth defect may qualify for a malpractice lawsuit include:

  • Failure to Diagnose – A physician treating a pregnant mother should run genetic screening tests if their patient has a history of birth defects. Also, a physician must keep a pregnant mother healthy, monitor her blood levels, and ensure that any conditions are treated or addressed as quickly as possible. For example, the mother has an infection, but the physician fails to diagnose that infection. The infection then affects the infant’s development and leaves them with a preventable defect. In this case, the physician’s failure to diagnose or treat was the primary cause of that defect; thus, the physician could be held liable.
  • Improper Prenatal Care – A physician has a standard approach to prenatal care, which includes frequent screenings and follow-ups with their patient. When the physician fails to conduct the screenings at the designated time, or fails to follow-up on a patient’s condition, they could be held liable if the infant is born with a defect.
  • Prescribing Medications Known to Cause Defects – Another instance where a physician could be liable is if they prescribe a medication to a pregnant patient knowing that there is a high risk for a birth defect. There are times when a mother must take a medication that carries this risk, but only if the physician can justify how those benefits of the medication outweigh the risk for a defect.
  • Failure to Obtain Consent – Physicians may need to perform medical procedures or prescribe medications with a high risk of defect for their unborn child. Before doing so, they must receive informed consent from their patient. If they fail to inform their patient and obtain consent, they could be held liable for the defect; even if that defect was a known complication.
  • Failure to Notify – If a defect is detected, a physician needs to present their patient with the results and provide them with options. In some cases, parents may be able to sue for having a child born with defects when they could have prevented the birth early on.

What Damages Could a Parent Receive for an Infant’s Defect?

The damages in these types of cases vary depending on the type of defect, its severity, and how it will impact the parents. Some compensation that you may receive if your child is born with a preventable defect include:

  • Medical Costs – You may be able to receive compensation for any medical costs at birth, but also any future medical costs associated with your child’s treatment.
  • Lost Wages – if a child is born with a serious defect that requires around the clock attention, one parent may no longer be able to work. In this case, they may request compensation for the lost wages and household income.
  • Pain and Suffering – Some defects can leave a child with pain and long-term suffering. Parents can seek compensation for their child’s physical, mental, and emotional suffering.
  • Mental Anguish for Parents – Parents may receive compensation for their emotional and mental distress as a result of having a child born with a birth defect.

Choosing the Right Firm for a Birth Defect Case

When choosing a law firm to represent your child and yourself for a defect case, you need an attorney that has experience handling these types of cases. Also, you need a law firm with the resources on hand to stand up to medical providers and their insurance companies.

The birth defect team from Berkowitz and Hanna, LLC are here to help you with your case. We have years of experience and have helped countless parents just like you with birth defect claims.

To get started, contact Berkowitz and Hanna, LLC to schedule a no-obligation case evaluation. You can also connect with a team member online and someone will be in touch soon to schedule your appointment.