Down Syndrome: How can I tell if my child will have it?

Down Syndrome is a genetic disorder where a person has three copies of chromosome 21 instead of two. 

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Down Syndrome is a genetic disorder where a person has three copies of chromosome 21 instead of two. Chromosomes are small “packages" of genes in the body. They determine how a baby's body forms and functions as it grows in the womb and after birth.

Here is more to this condition that you need to know about.

How it occurs

A normal baby is born with 46 chromosomes (each cell contains 23 pairs), but babies with Down Syndrome have 47. This extra chromosome changes how the baby's body and brain develop, which can cause both mental and physical challenges for the baby. It is the most frequently occurring chromosomal disorder.

A person with Down Syndrome can be identified by their unique physical features, which include a flattened face, slanted eyes, a short neck, small ears, a tongue that tends to stick out of the mouth, small hands and feet and tiny spots on the iris of the eye. They also tend to be shorter in height than children and adults with poor muscle tone.

Classical Down Syndrome is not an inherited condition. It usually occurs because of a chance happening at the time of conception. However, in rare cases, (less than 5 percent), some recombinant genetic errors can be transmitted from parents to their offspring. Increasing maternal age after 35 years is one of the known risk factors.

Diagnosis during pregnancy

There are two tests available to detect Down Syndrome during pregnancy: screening tests and diagnostic tests. A screening test can tell a woman and her healthcare provider whether her pregnancy has a lower, or higher chance of having the condition, but it does not provide an absolute diagnosis. They are safer than diagnostic tests for the mother and the developing baby.

Screening tests often include a combination of a blood test, which measures the amount of various substances in the mother's blood, and an ultrasound, which creates a picture of the baby. During an ultrasound, one of the things the technician looks at is the fluid behind the baby's neck. Extra fluid in this region could indicate a genetic problem.

Diagnostic tests, on the other hand, can typically detect whether, or not a baby will have Down Syndrome, but they can be riskier for the mother and the developing baby.

These tests are usually performed after a positive screening test to confirm a Down Syndrome diagnosis by looking for changes in the chromosomes that would indicate the condition. This involves examining material from the placenta, the amniotic fluid and blood from the umbilical cord. Some of these tests may carry some risks depending on gestation and need to be discussed with the doctor.

Other complications

Apart from its effects on appearance, Down Syndrome can cause a number of medical complications. Some of these are more serious than others, but most of them can be treated. The most serious complications include heart defects, blood disorders like Leukemia and immune system problems.

Approximately half of all babies with Down Syndrome are born with heart defects. Usually, these defects affect the walls separating the four chambers of the heart. The condition can also cause blood cell abnormalities such as leukaemia.

The immune system of people with Down Syndrome is compromised and they are more vulnerable to infections, certain kinds of cancer and autoimmune conditions.

They also suffer from stomach and digestive problems including abnormally formed digestive organs that may require surgery and celiac disease, a condition that impairs their ability to absorb nutrients, especially gluten.

Down Syndrome can affect the way the body produces or responds to hormones causing hormonal disorders that contribute to obesity problems and Type 1 diabetes. People with Down Syndrome also suffer from skeletal problems caused by too much flexibility between the bones at the top of the spine that support the head.

Other less serious complications include intellectual disability, vision problems, hearing impairment, skin disorders, behavioural and psychological problems, height and weight, sleep apnea and fertility problems, especially in men.

Is Down Syndrome curable?

Though there is no cure for Down Syndrome, there are services available to help babies and children improve their physical and intellectual abilities. The management requires a multidisciplinary medical team approach.

Dr Oyieke is a Paediatric Neurologist at Aga Khan University Hospital, Nairobi.

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