By Dave Andrusko
In the last decade NRL News and NRL News Today have carried dozens of stories about in utero surgery performed on unborn babies, usually in cases of children prenatally diagnosed with spina bifida.
Such surgery is almost routine in the United States– doctors at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia have reportedly performed the operation more than 200 times—but such curative surgery is virtually unknown in Europe.
Which is why a story in yesterday’s France24.com is so encouraging. Jacques Demarthon reports that mother and baby are healthy after surgeons in France successfully performed a prenatal operation on a 20-week-old baby suffering from spina bifida, a congenital disorder.
The “groundbreaking surgery was performed in July at the Armand Trousseau public hospital in Paris,” Demarthon reported. The full-term baby was born November 9. Dr. Jean-Marie Jouannic and Dr. Michel Zerah led the two medical teams.
Gina Beddoe was the first British woman to have the surgery covered by the country’s National Health Service, “but she needed to travel to Belgium for the 22-hour operation,” according to Demarthon. Her baby’s back was repaired in May.
“She was born in August at 35 weeks and to her parents’ delight she was moving and kicking her tiny legs in the air,” the Daily Mail reported. (On Friday, NRL News Today will report on Frankie Lavis, born to parents Gina Beddoe and Dan Lavis.)
Back in May, “the Leuven Teaching Hospital – where Beddoe and her baby underwent successful surgery – was one in only four European centres to perform the revolutionary operation,” Demarthon reported.
Alas, a large percentage of babies who are diagnosed with spina bifida are aborted.
What is spina bifida?
Spina bifida happens when the spine of the baby fails to close during the first few months of pregnancy. It can be associated with brain and nerve damage, including paralysis as well as a buildup of cerebrospinal fluid inside the brain.
Typically, prompt surgery after birth can prevent further harm but it cannot reverse the nerve damage that has already taken place. According to the news service AFP, spina bifida occurs in one out of every 1,000 pregnancies in France.
Dr. Jouannic told Demarthon that
after incisions to the mother’s uterus and the fetus, the operation involved covering the spinal cord and then closing the surrounding tissue and skin to protect it.
“Ten days after the surgery, the brain anomalies [in the fetus] that were caused by the disorder had disappeared,” Jouannic told the AFP news agency. “It’s incredible to be able to protect this little girl’s brain to enable future learning.”