Baby, Pregnancy

Anencephaly – Symptoms, Cause, Treatment & Prevention

There are simply many health defects that a developing baby in the womb can develop. While some are minor, others are very complicated. There are also those birth defects that are simply on the extreme. One such birth defect is anencephaly.

This is a rare condition associated with incomplete development of the skull, scalp and the brain. It is estimated that 1 out of every 10,000 babies are born with the condition in the US a lone. Rate of occurrence in China seem to be higher since 5 out of every 10,000 newborns have the condition. Occurrence rate in developing countries seem to be higher considering that 1 out of every 10,000 births in Ghana are born with the condition.

Anencephaly is a deadly birth defect since 75% of the unborn who develop it die before pregnancy term. Those born alive also die within hours, days or a few weeks. From available research findings, the condition affects females than boys.


According to US National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), a newborn baby with anencephaly is normally blind, deaf and usually unaware of the surrounding. Such a baby is also bound not to feel any form of pain.

It is also possible for an infant born with the condition to have some tissue of the brain exposed because of incomplete development of the skull.


It is not clear what causes anencephaly. Indeed medical experts differ on the most likely cause of this fatal condition. However, they all agree on certain factors that have a role in occurrence of the condition.

Anencephaly is just one of the several neural tube defects a developing embryo can develop in the womb. One factors that has been noted in occurrence is lack of or insufficient levels of vitamin B9 (folic acid) in a woman’s body prior and during pregnancy.

Medical experts also believe that continuous exposure to chemicals and toxins including mercury, nickel, chromium and lead contribute to occurrence of the condition.

It has also been observed that diabetic women who conceive or use anticonvulsant medications during pregnancy increase chances of fetus developing the condition.

Regardless of cause or causative factor(s), anencephaly occurs around the 26th day of pregnancy, a time by when the neural tube should have developed and closed. Incomplete development of the tube or failure to close results in the remaining structure only covered by a thin membrane with bones that form the skull partially or totally missing.


There is neither cure nor treatment for anencephaly. Unborn babies who develop the condition are born dead. Those who survive to be born die within hours or weeks from cardio respiratory arrest. Notable cases of babies born with the condition and lived longer include baby Stephanie Keene who was born in Virginia, US and lived for slightly over 2 years before dying and baby Vitoria de Cristo who was born in Brazil in 2010 and lived for 1 ½ years. These babies were provided the best support possible but never lived long.

The condition can be detected during pregnancy through screening. A sample of an expecting mother’s blood can be subjected to appropriate blood tests to detect presence of alpha-fetoprotein, a type of protein normally produced by fetus’s immature liver cells. Ultrasound and fetal MRI tests can also detect the condition.


Although a rare birth defect/condition, any fetus can develop anencephaly in the womb regardless of a mother’s race or background. However, it is a condition that is easily preventable.

Women of child-bearing age should always ensure that they go for medical check ups before they conceive. It is during such check ups that low levels of folic acid can be detected and remedial measures undertaken. Good nutrition and safe environment are also important factors that any woman of child-bearing age should take into account before and during pregnancy term.

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