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You can help prevent birth defects

It seems every month is dedicated to one cause or another these days. But here's one to pay special attention to this month because the future health and lives of children are on the line.

January is National Birth Defects Prevention Month.

The stakes are high. Approximately 1 in 110 live births is reported to have congenital heart defects annually in the U.S., according to the National Birth Defects Prevention Network (NBDPN). Fortunately, many forms of congenital heart defects may be preventable through healthy lifestyle choices and medical interventions before and during pregnancy.

The Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) is distributing information to local public health departments that work with women across the state. "We are excited to be part of this national movement," said Kristin Oehlke, birth defects program manager at MDH. "Through our efforts across the state, we aim to reach women and their families with vital prevention information."

Oehlke noted that the first few weeks of pregnancy are especially important. "The heart forms in the early weeks of pregnancy, and diet, lifestyle choices, environmental factors, health conditions and medications all can play a role in preventing or causing congenital heart defects," Oehlke said.

To help prevent congenital heart defects, studies have shown that women should:

• Avoid all alcohol and illegal/recreational drugs if there is a chance they may become pregnant.

• Avoid all exposure to smoke, chemicals and toxins, both at work and at home.

• Take a folic acid supplement throughout the child-bearing years and check with health care providers about getting adequate amounts of all essential nutrients.

• See a physician before pregnancy. This is especially important for women who are taking medications for medical conditions such as seizures or depression; have any known metabolic conditions, including diabetes or obesity; or have a family history of congenital heart defects.

• Ensure their blood sugar is under control and achieve a healthy weight before pregnancy if they have diabetes or are obese.

"Small steps like visiting a health care provider before pregnancy and taking a multivitamin every day can make a difference," said Oehlke. She added that women can take other steps in their everyday lives to maintain good health, such as having regular health care check-ups and learning about family history and genetic risks.

More information is available at

Organizations like the MDH and the March of Dimes have a daunting challenge of fighting a condition that claims the lives of more than 3.3 million children worldwide every year. Yet there's hope: An estimated 70 percent of birth defects can be prevented through a continuum of preconception care that includes education. Being aware of the risks that can cause birth defects is a big first step in preventing a child's life from being cut short. -- Alexandria Echo Press