News & Commentary

No One Knows Why Birth Defect on Rise


Incidence of gastroschisis, a rare birth defect, grew 30% between 1995–2005 and 2006–2012 across all racial and ethnic groups, according to the CDC. Gastroschisis is a condition in which the intestines (and also sometimes the stomach and liver) protrude from a hole in the baby’s abdomen. Fixing the problem requires surgery soon after birth and the organs can become infected from exposure to amniotic fluid, causing life-threatening problems.

Data were collected from 14 states and divided into two groups: 1995–2005 and 2006–2012, stratified by maternal age, race, and ethnicity. There were 4,369 cases among 12 million live births between 1995 and 2005; 4,497 cases among 9.3 million live births between 2006 and 2012, which works out to about 1 in 2,000 births. Babies born to black mothers ages 20 or younger between 1995 and 2012 had a 263% increased chance of gastroschisis.

No one quite knows what causes gastroschisis, though the CDC study says that risk factors include lower socio­economic status, lower body mass index and other indications of poor nutrition (lower intake of high quality nutrients and dietary fats), smoking, use of illicit drugs, alcohol, or analgesic medications, and genitourinary infections. The study was in the January 21 issue of the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

Babies born with the defect often spend up to six to eight weeks longer in the hospital (often in the NICU) than those without the condition and cost about $80,000 more to treat.

The number of children being born with gastroschisis is increasing internationally, not just in the United States, CDC researchers note.

“The association between young maternal age and gastroschisis was first reported in the late 1970s, and this risk factor has been documented consistently in subsequent studies,” the study states. “However, the increased prevalence of gastroschisis is not because of an increase in teen births, which have declined in recent years, or to a change in the distribution of births to teen mothers, as birth rates have decreased among women of all ages <20 years.”