Reducing risks of birth defects

Pregnant women should use medical insurance to go for antenatal follow-ups /Courtesy photo

A disability may be explained as an impairment that may be cognitive, developmental, intellectual, mental, physical, and sensory, or a combination of these.

It substantially affects a person’s life activities and may be present from birth or occur during a person’s lifetime.

Medics and experts say some risk factors of born-with disabilities can be avoidable, especially when the woman gets pregnant.


Dr Jean Baptiste Sagahutu, a lecturer at University of Rwanda’s College of Medicine, says ignorance and poverty most of the times go hand-in-hand, and they contribute greatly towards disabilities.

It is possible to give birth to children with disabilities, not only from genetic problems, but also from some improper living conditions, he says.

Dr Sagahutu says when pregnant women don’t have the means to go to the hospital in case of any health problem, of just for routine check-ups, they sometimes take traditional herbs, which most of the time they don’t know the right dose to take, or the risks involved, even to the babies they carry.

“Even modern medicines are not allowed for pregnant women. Some may be replaced by others, or the dose reduced in order not to harm the baby,” he says.

Every pregnant woman has to take drugs which have been prescribed by a gynaecologist because there is a long list of medications that can have a negative impact on the foetus, he says.

Some drugs to avoid if not prescribed by a gynaecologist include painkillers like aspirin, acetaminophen and ibuprofen, antihistamines, nasal decongestants, antifungal medication, acne medications, antibiotics, especially tetracycline and Streptomycin, and tranquilizers, among others.

Fortunately, the situation is improving compared to previous years when society knew nothing about disabilities, he says.

“For now, pregnant women have medical insurance and they are able to go to the hospital for antenatal follow-ups. It has reduced the number of children born with disabilities considerably,” Dr Sagahutu says.

Thanks to the community-based insurance, a great number of women give birth in hospitals and the number of babies who suffer because of prolonged labour and brain shock has been lowered significantly, he adds.

Researchers show that more disabilities are acquired after birth from accidents and some diseases like measles and meningitis, he says.


Minister of Health, Dr Diane Gashumba, says pregnant women have to go for four antenatal visits as a follow-up on the life of the baby, and their own.

Dr Gashumba says pregnant women need enough blood and any shortage of it can lead to complications on the life of the child and the mother.

“Pregnant women have to go to the hospital to receive additional complements like iron tablets to increase the volume of blood. They may have sudden unusual blood pressure, and so they have to go regularly to health facilities to check on it,” she says.

When a pregnant woman has abnormal blood pressure, it may even result in the death of the baby, she says.

There is also malaria, which is very bad for the health of the baby and the mother, and it may cause sudden death or premature delivery, which is very risky, she adds.


In Dr Georges D. Pamplona Roger’s book “Guide d’Alimentation pour les meres, les enfants et les adolescents”, pregnant women have to avoid certain foods because they may increase the risks of congenital malformation to the foetus.

These foods include dietary supplements, except when they have been prescribed by medics, because they can exercise opposite effects on the foetus.

“It is not good to take coffee and other drinks which contain caffeine, like Coca Cola and tea. Caffeine increases the risk of complications.

Some illicit drugs like marijuana and cannabis bring high risk of congenital malformation to the foetus.

Dr Pamplona mentions that even the moderate consummation of alcoholic drinks can damage the brain of foetus.

It is highly recommended to stop smoking during pregnancy as it can cause many risks to the health of the baby, including death.

It is important for a pregnant woman to avoid any exposure to x-rays, even for dental treatment. Also, keep away from chemical products including pesticides, paint, hair relaxers and many others.

Many of the chemical products are absorbed through the skin or breathing and they are transmitted in the blood and reach the foetus, which increases the risk of congenital malformation.

Dr Sagahutu says when a child is born with disabilities and is not helped at a very early stage, the gravity of the disability increases.