Birth defects: What every parent should know


In Kenya, birth defects, also known as congenital abnormalities, are difficult to detect during pregnancy.  Birth defects may affect appearance, organ function, physical and mental development of a child. They may be either minor or severe and  are the leading cause of death for infants during the first year of life.

There are two main types of birth defects:

1. Structural birth defects

These are related to a problem with body parts either being malformed or missing. Some physical problems include;

  1. Heart defects – the defects can involve the walls and the valves of the heart, the arteries and veins near the heart.
  2. Cleft lip or palate – when there’s an opening or split in the lip or roof of the mouth
  3. Spina bifida – when the spinal cord doesn’t develop properly
  4. Clubfoot – when the foot points inward instead of forward

2. Functional / developmental birth defects

These are related to a problem with how a body part or body system works. These problems often lead to developmental disabilities. They can be classified ads follows;

a. Nervous system or brain problems

Such as learning disabilities, mental retardation, behavioral disorders, speech or language difficulties, convulsions, and movement trouble. They include Autism, Down syndrome

b. Sensory problems

Such as blindness, cataracts and other visual problems, and varying degrees of hearing loss including deafness

c. Metabolic disorders

These involve a body process or chemical pathway or reaction, such as conditions that limit the body’s ability to get rid of waste materials or harmful chemicals. Two common metabolic disorders are phenylketonuria (PKU) and hypothyroidism.

d. Degenerative disorders

These are conditions that might not be obvious at birth, but cause one or more aspects of health to steadily get worse. For example, muscular dystrophy, and lysosomal disorders

Risk factors of birth defects

  1. Family history of birth defects or other genetic disorders
  2. Drug use, alcohol consumption, or smoking during pregnancy
  3. Maternal age of 35 years or older
  4. Lack of or inadequate prenatal care
  5. Untreated viral or bacterial infections, including sexually transmitted infections
  6. Use of certain high-risk medications


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Beyond Borders Medtours team