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Spina Bifida / Neural Tube Defects

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What is Spina bifida?

Neural tube defects are disorders involving incomplete development of the brain, spinal cord, and/or their protective coverings. Spina bifida is a neural tube defect caused by the failure of the fetal spine to close properly during the first month of pregnancy. Babies born with spina bifida sometimes have an open lesion on their spine where significant damage to the nerves and spinal cord has occurred. Although the spinal opening can be surgically repaired shortly after birth, the nerve damage is permanent, resulting in varying degrees of paralysis of the lower limbs, and difficulties with bowel and bladder function. Learning disabilities may also be involved.

The three most common types of spina bifida are: myelomeningocele, the severest form, in which the spinal cord and its protective covering (the meninges) protrude from an opening in the spine; meningocele, in which the spinal cord develops normally but the meninges protrude from a spinal opening; and occulta, the mildest form, in which one or more vertebrae are malformed and covered by a layer of skin.

Due to medical advances, it is often possible to discover during pregnancy whether or not the fetus is affected with spina bifida or other neural tube defects. This can allow parents the opportunity to choose whether or not to continue with the pregnancy.

Prenatal Testing for Spina Bifida

It is widely accepted throughout the United States that obstetricians must now offer or discuss the availability of certain prenatal screening tests for spina bifida and other neural tube defects with every pregnant patient, regardless of age or family history:

  • Quadruple screen (or AFP screen)
    • At 16 to 18 weeks gestation, blood is drawn from the mother and analyzed for the presence of alpha-fetoprotein (AFP) and other substances. Abnormally high levels of AFP are associated with an increased risk of spina bifida and certain other disorders. If this screening test is abnormal, patients must be offered targeted ultrasound and/or amniocentesis, so that a definitive diagnosis can be made.
  • Ultrasound
    • At 16 to 22 weeks gestation, a standard ultrasound examination is performed to survey the fetal anatomy. At that time, the fetal head (brain) and neck, heart, abdomen (stomach, kidneys, bladder), spine and limbs are carefully examined for evidence of abnormalities. It is important that this examination be performed by a qualified, well trained medical professional who is familiar with accepted standards of care. Evidence of a wide range of fetal abnormalities can often be detected with a competent and thorough examination, including but not limited to findings associated with spina bifida and other neural tube defects.
  • Amniocentesis
    • A thin needle is inserted to get a small sample of amniotic fluid, which surrounds the fetus in the womb. If the amniotic fluid contains an elevated level of AFP, a second test can be done on the same sample to reliably confirm that the fetus is affected.

Your Rights in the Event of a Spina Bifida Misdiagnosis

In order to recover, parents generally must prove that a medical providers negligence prevented them from learning that there was an increased risk that the fetus had a significant birth defect or genetic condition. They must also establish that they would likely have terminated the pregnancy had they been advised of the problem. In doing so, they are not in any way calling into question their love and devotion to their child – that relationship has already been established and will continue forever. Instead, they are merely acknowledging that if told of the defect or disease during the pregnancy, they would have likely chosen not to undertake the financial and emotional issues involved in parenting a child with a significant lifelong disability.

The New Jersey Supreme Court has held that if a prenatal misdiagnosis claim  is established, the negligent medical provider must provide compensation for the extraordinary expenses related to the child’s condition over the child’s lifetime. In addition, compensation must be provided to the parents for any emotional injury experienced  in parenting a child with special needs.  Prenatal misdiagnosis claims – which are sometimes referred to as “wrongful birth” cases – are permitted to varying degrees in some states, and are not permitted in other states.  The law firm of Weiss & Paarz works with with top rated medical malpractice law firms nationwide in pursing cases.

Common mistakes involving prenatal misdiagnosis of Spina bifida and other neural tube defects

Prenatal misdiagnosis claims involving a child with spina bifida require a thorough investigation as to whether or not a medical provider was negligent. Mistakes in such cases include but are not limited to:

  • Failure to take a competent and thorough genetic screening history of both parents
  • Failure to recommend or perform genetic counseling
  • Failure to discuss the availability of appropriate testing at the appropriate gestational age
  • Failure to offer quadruple screen (or any AFP screening) at the appropriate gestational age
  • Improper information provided to laboratory conducting prenatal testing
  • Improper  interpretation of prenatal screening testing by laboratory
  • Improper interpretation of prenatal screening results by obstetrical care providers
  • Misplaced or overlooked prenatal screening results by obstetrical care providers
  • Improperly dated pregnancies
  • Inadequately performed or interpreted ultrasound

What to Do After a Spina Bifida Misdiagnosis

Unfortunately, children affected with spina bifida will typically require a lifetime of special needs. If your child has spina bifida, and you did not learn of this diagnosis in time to exercise a choice as to whether or not to continue the pregnancy, you may be entitled to compensation. Proceeding with a claim may be the only way to ensure your child has the financial resources to address any future needs.

Collectively, New Jersey medical malpractice lawyers Michael L. Weiss, Esq. and Robert E. Paarz, Esq. have presented several spina bifida prenatal misdiagnosis cases to juries, and have helped many families obtain the financial assistance needed to lessen or eliminate the financial burden caused by spina bifida and other birth defects and genetic disorders. They are committed to using their knowledge and experience to help families that have been negligently deprived of their constitutional right to choose whether to continue a pregnancy involving an affected fetus obtain fair compensation.  Although based in New Jersey, the firm affiliates with top rated medical malpractice law firms nationwide in pursuing cases.

If you would like to discuss the possibility of pursuing a claim, please contact  the spina bifida and neural tube injury lawyers at Weiss & Paarz, P.C., today.

*The firm handles cases in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. For cases outside those states, Weiss & Paarz works with local attorneys in the state where the medical care took place, at no additional cost to the client.


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