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MMWR CDC Surveill Summ. 1995 Aug 25;44(4):1-13.

Surveillance for anencephaly and spina bifida and the impact of prenatal diagnosis--United States, 1985-1994.

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  • 1Arkansas Reproductive Health Monitoring System.



The reported prevalence of anencephaly and spina bifida in the United States has steadily declined since the late 1960s. During this time, the ability to diagnose these defects prenatally has progressed rapidly. Many U.S. birth defects surveillance systems ascertain defects only among live-born infants or among infants and fetuses beyond a certain gestational age, thus excluding defects among pregnancies prenatally diagnosed as being affected by a neural tube defect (NTD) and electively terminated before the gestational age limit. The impact of prenatal diagnosis and subsequent pregnancy termination on the reported prevalence of anencephaly and spina bifida in the United States has not been well established. However, assessment of this impact is crucial to the use of surveillance data to monitor trends in the occurrence of NTDs and the effectiveness of interventions for these defects (e.g., increased consumption of folic acid).


This report presents data from birth defects surveillance systems in six states over different time periods: Arkansas, 1985-1989; California, 1989-1991; Georgia, 1990-1991; Hawaii, 1988-1994; Iowa, 1985-1990; and South Carolina, 1992-1993.


Population-based data about a) live-born and stillborn infants with anencephaly and spina bifida and b) pregnancies electively terminated after prenatal diagnosis of these defects were analyzed from the Arkansas Reproductive Health Monitoring System; the California Birth Defects Monitoring Program; CDC's Metropolitan Atlanta Congenital Defects Program; the Iowa Birth Defects Registry, the University of Iowa, and the Iowa Department of Public Health; and the Greenwood Genetic Center in South Carolina. Data also were analyzed from the Hawaii Birth Defects Monitoring Program, which includes data for some women who were not residents of the state. The systems differed in the size and racial/ethnic composition of the populations studied, the surveillance methods used, the completeness of ascertainment, and the availability and utilization of prenatal testing and pregnancy termination.


Among all pregnancies ascertained in which the infant or fetus had anencephaly or spina bifida, the percentages that were electively terminated ranged from 9% in Arkansas to 42% in Atlanta and Hawaii, with a corresponding increase in the adjusted prevalence of these defects compared with the prevalence at birth. In each system, pregnancies associated with anencephaly were terminated more frequently than were those associated with spina bifida. These data indicate that the impact of prenatal diagnosis and subsequent pregnancy termination on the prevalence at birth of anencephaly and spina bifida differs among geographic areas and populations. Comprehensive surveillance for these defects requires inclusion of pregnancies that are prenatally diagnosed and then terminated.


CDC will use these data to promote the inclusion of prenatally diagnosed and terminated pregnancies in estimates of the prevalence of anencephaly and spina bifida generated by birth defects surveillance programs in the United States. Including such pregnancies is crucial to the ability of these programs to monitor trends accurately and to establish the effectiveness of interventions, including the use of folic acid, for these defects.

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