Preventing Cerebral Palsy

Prenatal care may be the solution to this neurological disorder in Black babies.

Posted: 04/04/2011 10:52 AM EDT

Imagine this: Simply by getting prenatal care, it is possible for African-American women to lower the risk of having a child with cerebral palsy.

"We found that women who received prenatal care had a lower risk of having a child with cerebral palsy," said Yvonne Wu, who led a study on cerebral palsy at the University of California, San Francisco. "However, we don't know whether the prenatal care itself protects women from having a child with cerebral palsy, or whether women who receive prenatal care differ in some other way that reduces the risk of having a child with cerebral palsy."

Recent research shows that Black infants have a 30 percent higher chance of being born with cerebral palsy than whites. However, in February 2011, a study published in the Journal of Pediatrics also found that after taking birth weight out of the equation, Black babies were between 21 and 29 percent less likely than whites to be diagnosed.

The results of the study are a testament to how important it is for Black mothers, especially teens, to get adequate prenatal care. Women who skip their regular doctor visits are twice as likely to give birth to a baby with cerebral palsy, according to Reuters Health.

"If we could eliminate the racial disparity in low birth-weight deliveries, then we would also eliminate the differences in cerebral palsy between Blacks and whites," said Dr. Wu.

Cerebral palsy is a group of brain abnormalities that affects a child’s movement and muscle coordination. Most children are born with it and can go undiagnosed for months or even years, but once the disorder presents itself it will not worsen with time. Some common symptoms include lack of muscle coordination, stiff muscles, exaggerated reflexes or walking too stiffly or floppy.

Damage to one or more areas of the brain is the most frequent cause of cerebral palsy, usually occurring during pregnancy. It is possible to acquire cerebral palsy after birth, usually due to brain damage from trauma or infection, but this only makes up about 10 to 20 percent of all cases.

There is no cure for cerebral palsy as of now but there are treatments, including therapy, medications and surgery, which aim to improve the patient’s quality of life. The earlier treatment begins, the better chances the child has to learn better functionality and lead the life of their choice.

Dr. Wu and her colleagues analyzed more than 6.2 million birth records in California between 1991 and 2001. Around 8,400 infants among the records were diagnosed with cerebral palsy—or about a rate of 1.4 cases for every 1,000 live births.

(Photo: BRAD LUTTRELL/Landov)

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