National Birth Defects Prevention Month Brings Attention to Congenital Heart Defects

National Birth Defects Prevention Month Brings Attention to Congenital Heart Defects
Approximately 500 cases of congenital heart defects occur annually in Arkansas

LITTLE ROCK, AR (Jan. 3, 2012) - January is National Birth Defects Prevention Month and this year the Arkansas Children's Hospital Research Institute (ACHRI) and the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS) are actively focusing on helping healthcare professionals and the general public take positive steps to reduce the risk of congenital heart defects. Nearly 40,000 cases of congenital heart defects (approximately 1 in 110 live births) are reported annually in the U.S. with around 500 cases occurring in Arkansas.

The Arkansas Center for Birth Defects Research and Prevention, a section within the UAMS Department of Pediatrics, and ACHRI are joining the National Birth Defects Prevention Network (NBDPN) to increase awareness on birth defects, the leading cause of infant mortality in the United States.

"About 50 percent of all pregnancies in the United States are not planned and many birth defects and fetal health problems occur in the first few weeks after conception - before a woman even knows she's pregnant," said Charlotte Hobbs, MD, PhD, section chief of birth defects research and professor of pediatrics at UAMS. "Because congenital heart defects are one of the most common types of birth defects and because the heart forms in the early weeks of pregnancy, it is our goal to educate women that this type of defect, as well as others, may be preventable through healthy lifestyle choices, good nutrition and proper intake of vitamins with folic acid."

Congenital heart defects include abnormalities of the heart that are present at birth. Some have only a minor and brief effect on a baby's health while some have very serious and life-long effects. Public awareness, accurate diagnosis and expert medical care are all essential for adequate prevention and management of these all too common and deadly conditions.

Studies have demonstrated several important steps women can take to help prevent congenital heart defects in newborns. Women who are pregnant or may become pregnant are advised to:

  • Avoid all alcohol and illegal/recreational drugs.
  • Avoid exposure to smoke, chemicals and toxins both at work and at home.
  • Take a folic acid supplement and check with their healthcare provider to confirm that you are getting adequate amounts of all the essential nutrients.
  • See a physician prior to pregnancy, especially if there are medical conditions which require medications or any known metabolic conditions including diabetes, obesity, phenyketonuria (PKU) or a family history of congenital heart defects. Diabetic or obese women should make sure that blood sugar is under control and work toward a healthy weight through a nutritious food plan prior to conception.
  • Receive regular medical check-ups and educate themselves about their family history and potential genetic risks.

"One easy way women can increase their health preconception is by increasing their folic acid intake," explains Dr. Hobbs. "Folic acid, taken daily, can help prevent some major birth defects and it is important that a woman start taking folic acid at least one month beforeshe becomes pregnant and continue taking it while she is pregnant."

Folic acid is a "B" vitamin that a woman's body needs to reduce heart disease, colon cancer and the risk of a stroke. It is recommended that women begin taking folic acid as early as 13 years old (always consult your family physician before adding a vitamin to your child's daily regimen).

  • Folic acid reduces the chances that your baby will be born with a birth defect of the heart, brain or spine.
  • Folic acid helps the baby's neural tube (the part that becomes the brain and spinal cord) develop properly - a common neural tube defect is spina bifida, which causes paralysis in children.
  • Folic acid is available through many foods such as leafy green vegetables, beans, lentils, peanuts, asparagus, peas, and enriched-grain products. However, studies show that it is hard to get the right amount from diet alone.
  • Women need 400 micrograms of folic acid each day and this can be obtained from an over the counter multi-vitamin(ask your pharmacist for a recommendation). Or you can get the 400 micrograms from a serving of ready-to-eat breakfast cereal - check the nutrition label.

"Small steps like visiting a healthcare provider before pregnancy and taking a multivitamin every day can go a long way," says Dr. Hobbs. The NBDPN is working with healthcare professionals and public health agencies around the country to encourage prevention and awareness of congenital heart defects among the over 60 million women of childbearing age in the United States. "We are excited to be part of this national campaign and we want the women of central Arkansas to be informed. Through our efforts across the country we plan to reach millions of women and their families with vital prevention information."

For more information about congenital heart defects, folic acid and good nutrition before and during pregnancy, contact the Section of Birth Defects Research at 1-877-662-4567 or visit the following websites: http://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/heartdefects/, http://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/folicacid/index.html, and http://www.marchofdimes.com/pregnancy/folicacid.html.

UAMS is the state's only comprehensive academic health center, with colleges of Medicine, Nursing, Pharmacy, Health Related Professions and Public Health; a graduate school; a hospital; a statewide network of regional centers; and seven institutes: the Winthrop P. Rockefeller Cancer Institute, the Jackson T. Stephens Spine & Neurosciences Institute, the Myeloma Institute for Research and Therapy, the Harvey & Bernice Jones Eye Institute, the Psychiatric Research Institute, the Donald W. Reynolds Institute on Aging and the Translational Research Institute. Named best Little Rock metropolitan area hospital by U.S. News & World Report, it is the only adult Level 1 trauma center in the state. UAMS has more than 2,800 students and 775 medical residents. It is the state's largest public employer with more than 10,000 employees, including about 1,000 physicians and other professionals who provide care to patients at UAMS, Arkansas Children's Hospital, the VA Medical Center and UAMS' Area Health Education Centers throughout the state. Visit www.uams.edu or www.uamshealth.com.

Arkansas Children's Hospital is the only pediatric medical center in Arkansas and one of the largest in the United States serving children. The campus spans 29 city blocks and houses 316 beds, a staff of approximately 500 physicians, 80 residents in pediatrics and pediatric specialties and more than 4,000 employees. The private, nonprofit healthcare facility boasts an internationally renowned reputation for medical breakthroughs and intensive treatments, unique surgical procedures and forward-thinking medical research - all dedicated to fulfilling our mission of enhancing, sustaining and restoring children's health and development. ACH recently ranked No. 75 on FORTUNE 100 Best Companies to Work For®. For more information, visit www.archildrens.org.

Related Articles