Etiology and clinical presentation of birth defects: population based study

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To assess causation and clinical presentation of major birth defects.


Population based case cohort.


Cases of birth defects in children born 2005-09 to resident women, ascertained through Utah's population based surveillance system. All records underwent clinical re-review.


5504 cases among 270 878 births (prevalence 2.03%), excluding mild isolated conditions (such as muscular ventricular septal defects, distal hypospadias).

Main outcome measures

The primary outcomes were the proportion of birth defects with a known etiology (chromosomal, genetic, human teratogen, twinning) or unknown etiology, by morphology (isolated, multiple, minors only), and by pathogenesis (sequence, developmental field defect, or known pattern of birth defects).


Definite cause was assigned in 20.2% (n=1114) of cases: chromosomal or genetic conditions accounted for 94.4% (n=1052), teratogens for 4.1% (n=46, mostly poorly controlled pregestational diabetes), and twinning for 1.4% (n=16, conjoined or acardiac). The 79.8% (n=4390) remaining were classified as unknown etiology; of these 88.2% (n=3874) were isolated birth defects. Family history (similarly affected first degree relative) was documented in 4.8% (n=266). In this cohort, 92.1% (5067/5504) were live born infants (isolated and non-isolated birth defects): 75.3% (4147/5504) were classified as having an isolated birth defect (unknown or known etiology).


These findings underscore the gaps in our knowledge regarding the causes of birth defects. For the causes that are known, such as smoking or diabetes, assigning causation in individual cases remains challenging. Nevertheless, the ongoing impact of these exposures on fetal development highlights the urgency and benefits of population based preventive interventions. For the causes that are still unknown, better strategies are needed. These can include greater integration of the key elements of etiology, morphology, and pathogenesis into epidemiologic studies; greater collaboration between researchers (such as developmental biologists), clinicians (such as medical geneticists), and epidemiologists; and better ways to objectively measure fetal exposures (beyond maternal self reports) and closer (prenatally) to the critical period of organogenesis.

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