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What are birth defects?

Birth defects are problems that develop while a fetus is growing during pregnancy. These problems can cause physical and mental disabilities, and may result in death.

There are thousands of different birth defects. Most occur in the first three months of pregnancy. The most common are heart defects, hypospadias, cleft lip and cleft palate, Down syndrome and spina bifida.

What causes birth defects?

Most birth defects are thought to be caused by a complex mix of factors, including a person’s genes, behaviors and things in the environment. For some birth defects, the cause is known. For most, the cause or causes are still unknown.

Some women are at higher risk of having a child with a birth defect:

The father’s age can increase the risk of having a child with a birth defect. Men over about 37 ½ years of age are at higher risk of having a child with certain genetic syndromes. These are syndromes caused by single small genetic changes that can happen in sperm of older men.

Other birth defects are also caused by genetic factors. These birth defects may run in families, but they may also occur when no one else in the family has this problem.

How is the environment linked to birth defects?

It is not clear how many birth defects are related to environmental exposures such as chemicals, drugs, and radiation. Some endocrine-disrupting chemicals, including polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), dioxins, and pesticides, have been linked to nervous system defects and developmental problems such as reduced muscle tone and response. More data are needed to make these connections clearer.

Living near a hazardous waste site has been identified as a possible risk factor for birth defects such as neural tube defects, which affect the developing brain and spinal cord.

Exposure to disinfection by-products in drinking water such as trihalomethanes, or THM, may increase the risk of some types of birth defects that affect the brain and spinal cord, the urinary tract, and the heart.

Other environmental factors suspected to be associated with birth defects include arsenic, plastics, solvents, and mercury.

The baby's development may be more susceptible to environmental exposures during the first trimester. This is the most sensitive time in pregnancy, when the organs and limbs are formed.
 
How can birth defects be prevented?

Not all birth defects can be prevented. Many happen very early in pregnancy, sometimes before a woman knows she is pregnant—about half of all pregnancies in the United States are not planned. However, there are some actions you can take to have the healthiest possible pregnancy.

Plan your pregnancy. See your health care provider before you become pregnant:

Take good care of yourself:

Seeing your health care provider regularly both before you are pregnant and when you become pregnant is especially important. Prenatal (before birth) care can help find some problems early in pregnancy so that they can be monitored or treated before birth. Some problems may be avoided with prenatal care.

How is information collected about birth defects in Vermont?

The Vermont Department of Health is authorized by law to collect information for the Birth Information Network (BIN). Information comes from birth certificates, newborn screening programs, hospitals, clinics, and other places where health records are kept. Some birth defects may be identified before birth, but Vermont’s Network collects information only on live births. The confidentiality of all personal health information entered in BIN is strictly protected by law, and parents can choose whether their child’s identifying information is included in the BIN.

Why is the Birth Information Network needed?

Which birth defects are included in Vermont’s Tracking program?

Vermont collects information about more than 40 birth conditions. Twelve of these conditions are part of the Environmental Public Health Tracking Network.

Since 2006, Vermont has collected information on the following 10 birth defects that are part of the Tracking Network:

Starting in 2011, Vermont received permission to collect information on two additional birth defects that are part of the Tracking Network:

What data about birth defects are included in Vermont’s Tracking program?

Data about birth defects on Vermont Tracking are for live births and for birth conditions diagnosed on or before the baby’s first birthday. These data are for the five-year period 2006–2010 and include the number of babies with the birth defect, the average annual number of cases over the five-year period, and the prevalence rate per 10,000 live births.

Even with five years of data, numbers of birth conditions in Vermont are small. When numbers of cases are fewer than six, Vermont Tracking does not show exact counts. With fewer than six cases, it is almost impossible to tell random changes from true changes in the data. Reporting small numbers is also avoided to maintain confidentiality of individuals.

County and state data are presented for three birth defects:

Statewide data are presented for seven birth defects:

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