Last week, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) noted an uptick in the number of babies born with gastroschisis, a serious birth defect in the infant's abdominal wall. The result, as the CDC explains, is that "the baby’s intestines stick outside of the baby’s body, through a hole beside the belly button."
Increases in reported cases of gastroschisis, it should be noted, is unrelated to the Zika virus, which causes babies to be born with underdeveloped brains.
In their Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, the CDC reported that an 18-year-long survey that spanned 14 states showed that rates of gastroschisis have gone up among all mothers. From the report:
The pooled data included approximately 29% of U.S. births for the period 1995–2012. During 1995–2012, gastroschisis prevalence increased in every category of maternal age and race/ethnicity, and the [average annual percent change (AAPC)] ranged from 3.1% in non-Hispanic white (white) mothers aged <20 years to 7.9% in non-Hispanic black (black) mothers aged <20 years. These corresponded to overall percentage increases during 1995–2012 that ranged from 68% in white mothers aged <20 years to 263% in black mothers aged <20 years. Gastroschisis prevalence increased 30% between the two periods, from 3.6 per 10,000 births during 1995–2005 to 4.9 per 10,000 births during 2006–2012.
Though cases of gastroschisis have gone up most dramatically among black teen mothers, young white and Hispanic mothers are overall more likely to give birth to babies with gastroschisis.
Researchers have linked gastroschisis to youth (teen moms are more likely to be affected) but are otherwise at a loss as to what causes the abdominal wall failure. But the CDC points out that the rise in gastroschisis can't be linked to a rise in teen pregnancies—those are actually on the decline.
And fewer women are giving birth now than they used to [link], so we can't conclude that the spike in gastroschisis is a result of more births in general. The CDC suggests more research is needed, but notes that some studies have linked young fathers, poor, unhealthy mothers, and a different father from a previous pregnancy to the disease.
"It concerns us that we don't know why more babies are being born with this serious birth defect. 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," the CDC's Coleen Boyle said in a statement.
Overall, over 1,800 American babies are born with the condition each year.
Gastroschisis sounds terrifying and can be life threatening, but is actually treatable with surgery. Dr. James Greenberg, who is the co-director of the Perinatal Institute and director of Neonatology at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center, explained to CBS News that if the condition is tracked from the womb, doctors can prepare.
"This can be picked up on a routine second trimester ultrasound. An 18-week ultrasound can identify this. For the caretakers, knowing ahead of time is very valuable for these babies," he said.
But even after the surgery, which puts the intestines in place and repairs the abdominal wall, babies might still have trouble eating and digesting. That condition can carry into adulthood.
Danielle Wiener-Bronner is a news reporter.