British health service NHS approves spina bifida surgery in unborn babies

Newborn baby representation. Pixabay

The National Health Service (NHS) in Britain has approved surgery on unborn babies diagnosed with spina bifida, the health service has said.

According to the NHS, doctors will be able to perform "within weeks" the surgery that involves taking the fetus out of the womb temporarily to repair its spinal cord by operating upon it, and then putting it back and stitching the abdomen closed.

The health service said the surgery to prevent nerve damage in unborn babies had already been used experimentally, and being performed elsewhere in the world.

Spina bifida – a neural tube defect – occurs when a baby's spine and spinal cord do not develop properly in the womb, causing a gap in the spine.

According to NHS, a lack of folic acid before and in early stages of pregnancy is a significant risk factor for the condition diagnosed in about four new-borns each week and responsible for lifelong disabilities such as leg paralysis, incontinence, and numbness.

National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), the organization which instructs the NHS which drugs and procedures it can use, has approved the open repair procedure to treat the gap that damages the nerves in the spine.

A C-section-type incision will be conducted on the mother's belly to pull out the baby, surgically repair the spine, and then put it back in and let the pregnancy continue.

Earlier, the procedure was carried out on babies with spina bifida after their birth, but a lot of damage can occur in the womb, experts suggested.

"These procedures have the potential to reduce the symptoms that would otherwise result from spina bifida, improving the quality of life for those with the condition," NICE Professor Kevin Harris said.

"The NHS will be offering open spinal surgery for spina bifida for unborn babies to eligible women in just a few weeks," NHS medical director and Professor Stephen Powis said.

The NICE, however, said the surgery must only be performed by specialist surgeons trained specifically for the procedure and adhered to the guidelines regarding criteria about who can and cannot have it.

The organization suggested that the surgery must be carried between 19 and 25 weeks into the pregnancy, and can't be done on twins or women having placentas in positions which make it difficult.

Welcoming the move, Gill Yaz, a spokesperson for spina bifida charity Shine, told Daily Mail that the operation could benefit about 20 babies every year and the parents did not need to travel abroad for the surgery anymore.