For those that are already pregnant or still seeking the fruit of the womb, taking an adequate amount of folate comes highly recommended. Adequate folate, among other nutrients, might be the difference between having a complete and healthy baby and a baby with birth defects. The compound has been found to be essential in cell division.
Luckily enough, folate, a compound that is a natural form of vitamin B9, is present in many commonly consumed foods such as eggs, seafood, beans, peanuts, liver, and several other foods. This means that all what hopeful and expectant mothers need to do is adapt their diets such that an adequate amount of folate is consumed. Quantitatively, about 400 micrograms of folate is recommended per day. In the absence of that, folate is available as over-the-counter supplement and nomenclatured as folic acid.
Inadequate folate has been shown to result in babies with neural tube defects. This is an abnormality that affects the brain, the spinal cord, and the spine altogether. The two most common physical manifestations of this abnormality are spinal bifida and anencephaly.
Babies with spinal bifida suffer from partial closing of the neural tube which is often manifested as physical or intellectual disability or both, depending on the severity of the opening.
Anencephaly is a different ball game entirely. Babies with such a defect come with parts of their skull and brain completely missing, leaving a chasm and often hardly survive beyond a few hours after been given birth to. Both conditions have low incidence rates with only an average of about 1,500 cases of spinal bifida and 1,000 cases of anencephaly reported yearly in the United States.
The two most common neural tube defects can be diagnosed while the baby is still in the womb as early as the 15th to 22nd week after fertilisation. Presumptive diagnosis can be done either by using quad screen test or ultrasound. Positive presumptive tests would require confirmation and this is often achieved by carrying out a comprehensive ultrasound of the skull and spinal cord of the growing embryo or conducting amniocentesis.
Your baby being diagnosed of spinal bifida may not be the end of the world, unlike anencephaly which currently has no known cure or standard treatment. In other words, something can still be done to fix spinal bifida, usually bordering around surgery. Once it is confirmed that the growing baby is inflicted with spinal bifida, there are two options available:
- Surgery before birth - fetal surgery
- Surgery after birth - infant surgery
Even though fetal surgery has been reported to have shown better results over infant surgery, it is highly recommended that fetal surgery is opted for only at specialty centers with experienced fetal surgery team due to higher risk of complication. The developing fetus is brought out via Caesaren Sectioning and the opening or openings closed up by series of medical procedure before being returned to the womb and the mother stitched up for the baby to continue it's normal development.
The infant surgery to fix spinal bifida is conducted within a few hours after birth. The neural tissue is put back into the spinal canal by a competent specialist before the muscles and skin around the area is closed up, sometimes by plastic surgeons.
The interesting case of Samuel Alexander Armas
The lesson about neural tube defects would be incomplete without the story of Samuel Alexander Armas and the infamous hand of hope. The now surgeon was just about 21 weeks old in his mother's womb when it was discovered that he had spinal bifida. To correct the anomaly, a team of surgeon came together, opened the mother up, brought out Samuel before carefully fixing the defect. Just when they were about stitching the mother up after returning Samuel into the womb, he brought out his tiny hand and grab a finger of one of the surgeons in a way that gesticulates hope and gratefulness. More about the story can be found here.
Neural tube defects in babies have been correlated with inadequate folate in the mother during the early developmental stages of pregnancy. However, there are other known risk factors associated with neural tube defects. These include genetic factors, obesity, diabetes, and side effects of certain drugs. Research has it that taking adequate folate before and during early stages of pregnancy reduces the risk of having a baby with neural tube defect by about 70 to 80%.