Birth Defects Cost U.S. Billions

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By Serena Gordon
HealthDay Reporter
Friday, January 26, 2007; 12:00 AM

FRIDAY, Jan. 26 (HealthDay News) -- The initial economic cost of having a baby born with a birth defect is enormous, ranging from several thousand dollars to severalhundredthousand dollars per child.

So concludes a study published in the Jan. 19 issue of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention'sMorbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

Researchers found that cardiovascular, gastrointestinal and musculoskeletal defects quickly run up the highest hospitalization bills.

"This study is a very important slice of the pie in terms of how expensive birth defects are," said Dr. Nancy Green, medical director of the March of Dimes. "It's important in terms of helping to define some of the costs associated with birth defects, and as a way to remind the public that birth defects are fairly common and are very expensive in terms of dollars -- and of heartache."

As many as one in 33 babies born in the United States has a birth defect, according to the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ). Birth defects are believed to generally occur during the first three months of pregnancy, often before a woman is even aware she is expecting.

The exact cause of many birth defects is unknown, but Green said they are presumed to occur as a complex interaction between the genetic predisposition of the fetus and "some sort of broadly defined environmental impact."

These defects can vary significantly in their severity. Some are mild. Others can cause the death of the baby soon after birth.

The current study included 2003 hospital data on 35 selected birth defects. The birth defects were chosen based on whether or not the condition could be diagnosed at birth and if it was a permanent condition without intervention.

The conditions responsible for the most in-hospital deaths during the study period were diaphragmatic hernia (protrusion of the stomach through the diaphragm), renal agenesis (absence of one or both kidneys), trisomy 18 (a serious birth defect in which there are three copies of chromosome 18), and several congenital heart defects.

Costs varied widely, depending on the birth defect. Overall, the most expensive birth defect was an obstructive genitourinary defect, which resulted in almost $365 million in hospital charges. This defect, which is a narrowing or an absence of certain urinary tract structures, is fairly common. About 13,000 babies were born with it, according to the study. Individually, the cost to fix this problem is about $28,000.

Surgeries to correct defects of the heart were among the most costly per procedure, often running to more than $100,000 per child.

In all, birth defects lead to more than $2.5 billion a year in hospital costs alone, according to the study.

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