A serious birth defect that causes the intestines to hang out of a newborn’s body near the belly button area is on the rise among babies born to young black mothers in the U.S., and health officials have no idea why.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention sounded the alarm about the birth defect, called gastroschisis, in a new report that analyzed data across 14 states from 1995 to 2012.
During that time period, the prevalence of gastroschisis more than doubled in the U.S., increasing among moms of every age and racial group. However, the increase has disproportionately affected babies born to black mothers, particularly those younger than 20 years-old. Among this group of young black mothers, the prevalence of gastroschisis has increased by more than 260 percent since 1995, compared to a 68 percent increase among infants born to young (<20 years) white mothers.
In all, 2,000 babies in the U.S. are born with the condition each year.
“Public health research is urgently needed to figure out the cause and why certain women are at higher risk of having a baby born with gastroschisis,” said Dr. Coleen Boyle, director of the CDC’s National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities.
The defect occurs during embryo development when the abdomen forms incorrectly, leaving a hole for the intestines – and sometimes the stomach and liver – to extend outside of the body. Doctors can spot the condition among mothers who receive regular ultrasounds by the second trimester, and then know to be particularly careful during delivery. But the organs still can become irritated from exposure inside the uterus and can twist, swell and become infected.
Surgery, in which doctors put the organs back into the abdomen and close its walls, is necessary a few weeks after birth. Recovery takes about six weeks.
Even after surgery, some gastroschisis patients have problems eating and digesting food, which can lead to acid reflux, malnutrition or stunted growth. In some cases, the birth defect can be life-threatening.
The CDC does not know why some babies develop gastroschisis – whether it is caused by genetic or environmental factors like what a pregnant woman eats or drinks or by the medicines she takes. The number of cases did not follow the same track as the number of live births for teen moms, which actually declined during the same period, the report said.
The disproportionate rise of gastroschisis among black infants reflects nationwide patterns of racially disparate birth outcomes. In the U.S., black infants are two to three times as likely as their white counterparts to be born prematurely and/or with low birth weight, contributing to an infant mortality rate that is twice as high among blacks than whites. While the causes of these disparities are not entirely understood, research suggests that higher levels of stress over the lifespan may be a significant contributor, with racism and discrimination playing a key role.
As a chronic, “toxic” stressor, racism has been shown to trigger a pattern of physiological vulnerability that, over time, leads to worse physical health, poorer overall wellbeing, and even less supportive social relationships. The result of this cumulative disadvantage is that black women have more severe physiological reactions to stressful experiences — including racism — during pregnancy, which has been directly linked with negative consequences for fetal and child development.