Birth Defects Insights: From Gastroschisis to Antidepressants and Zika: Time is Ticking Loudly...

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From Gastroschisis to Antidepressants and Zika: Time is Ticking Loudly for Pregnant Women

By Sarah Običan, OBGYN, Teratology Society Council Member

Where should I even begin? As a physician, I’m concerned. As a scientist, I’m concerned. As a woman in her childbearing years, I’m concerned. While the vast majority of babies are born healthy and free of birth defects, the prevalence of certain birth defects are on the rise and the bottom line is – it’s concerning.

Just in the past few days, new evidence of increasing rates of gastroschisis has emerged. Gastroschisis is a serious birth defect where the intestines and sometimes other organs poke through an opening in the abdomen near the belly button. We don't understand why this birth defect occurs. There’s only one consistent risk factor identified in studies - moms who are younger are more likely to have a baby with this problem. But in recent years, the rate of this problem has been increasing and we don't know why.

How about antidepressants during pregnancy? That’s always a hot button issue that seems to gain a lot of press attention, from jumping to conclusions of its potential link to autism, to premature birth and everything in between. We still do not have concrete answers. What we do have is mounting evidence of the growing use of antidepressants among childbearing women. According to a study published just last week, about 15 percent of women aged 15–44 years filled at least one prescription for an antidepressant in a single year. Since much is not known about the safety of antidepressants in pregnancy, coupled with the known fact that about half of pregnancies are unplanned, research on the effects of antidepressants during pregnancy needs to be prioritized so women and their doctors have the information they need to make informed choices.

And then there’s Zika. It’s on the nightly news. It’s a discussion around the water cooler. It’s real and appears to not be going away anytime soon, especially as women all over the world prep to travel and cheer on their home countries in this Summer Olympic games in Brazil. The association between Zika virus during a woman’s pregnancy and microcephaly in her baby is rapidly evolving. Microcephaly is a life-threatening neurodevelopmental birth defect characterized by an affected infant’s smaller-than-normal head.

Science is Hope

As a Council member of the Teratology Society, a society of scientists dedicated to researching birth defects and developmentally-mediated disorders, and Board member of the Organization of Teratology Information Specialist’s (OTIS) MotherToBaby program, it goes without saying that I look forward to our annual conferences. One of the advantages of the conferences, held jointly, is that they bring together experts from many fields. Some are laboratory scientists who do genetic studies, others do animal research, some focus on epidemiology studies, while others see patients and talk to parents. All these smart minds at the same meeting -- both in the formal meeting rooms and in the conversations that happen in the hallway between sessions -- can come up with new ideas on how to tackle these important issues causing so much concern. These are groups that don't get the opportunity to exchange ideas on a regular basis. Submit your research abstract online (deadline: February 15th), take part in our annual meeting, and visit

I hope that by having the leaders in the studies on Zika virus from Brazil and the United States presenting to our group of researchers leads to an improved understanding of this association and improved care for mothers and their babies. I hope that by bringing the world’s leaders on antidepressant research together in one session will lead to new ways to study its use in pregnancy. I hope our scientists help answer that young mom left wondering what she could have done differently to avoid having her baby deal with the complications of gastroschisis. Bottom line – From hope comes motivation, which, as scientists, can lead to answers. Join the hope.

Scientists interested or are already involved in research related to topics mentioned in this blog are encouraged to join the Teratology Society, the premier source for cutting-edge research and authoritative information related to birth defects and developmentally-mediated disorders. Members include those specializing in cell and molecular biology, developmental biology and toxicology, reproduction and endocrinology, epidemiology, nutritional biochemistry, and genetics, as well as the clinical disciplines of prenatal medicine, pediatrics, obstetrics, neonatology, medical genetics, and teratogen risk counseling. In addition, it publishes the scientific journal, Birth Defects Research.  Learn more at

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About The Author

Sarah G. Obican, MD, is an OBGYN, Maternal Fetal Medicine specialist at the University of South Florida. She’s currently a Councilor of the Teratology Society. She’s also on the Board of Directors of the Teratology Society’s sister organization, MotherToBaby, which provides evidence-based answers to questions about exposures during pregnancy and breastfeeding.




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