The CDC notes an alarming increase in cases of gastroschisis in the past two decades, but doctors aren't entirely sure what's causing it. 
baby recovering from gastroschisis birth defect
Credit: Tara Walton/Getty Images

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there has been an alarming increase in a birth defect called gastroschisis, which results in a newborn's intestines, and sometimes liver and stomach, poking through his abdomen. Even scarier: No one knows exactly what's causing the condition to appear more frequently.  

About 1,871 babies are born with gastroschisis each year. In 2016, the CDC tracked data from 14 states and noted that incidences of gastroschisis doubled from 1995 to 2005. A more recent report from January 2019 says rates continued to grow between 2006 and 2012.

Doctors and scientists aren't sure if the defect is due to genetics, exposure to something during pregnancy, or a combination of those two factors. They identify that smoking during pregnancy and young maternal age may contribute to the risk – and according to the January 2019 CDC study, so may using opioids while pregnant. Between 2006 and 2015, “the prevalence of gastroschisis was 1.6 times higher in counties with high opioid prescription rates and 1.4 times higher where opioid prescription rates were medium,” says the study. Even so, the CDC explains that public health research is needed to “assess the effect of prescription opioid use during pregnancy on this pregnancy outcome.”

Gastroschisis can be corrected through surgery once a baby is born, although the child may experience long-term challenges such as trouble absorbing nutrients, digestive issues, and a higher risk of complications and even death.

Despite the alarming nature of this recent news, the takeaway seems to be you should stay away from alcohol, drugs, and cigarettes while you are pregnant. You should also seek comprehensive prenatal care. Beyond that, we can hope researchers are soon able to pinpoint more about why this frightening congenital defect is on the rise, and how we can prevent its continued growth.