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Posted on 26 Jun 2018
Maternity and newborn

By Professor Susan McDonald.

One in 22 Victorian pregnancies result in a birth defect. And while we know some of the risk factors, we still don’t know what causes many of them. You can help us find out.

Congenital anomalies – also known as birth defects or birth disorders – are generally unexpected conditions that are present at birth. These conditions may be described as minor such as an extra tag of skin on the ear or tongue tie, through to major anomalies that are life threatening. They may be structural such as faults in the structure of the heart, lungs or brain, genetic, such as an extra chromosome disorder such as Down Syndrome, or functional, such as learning disabilities and deafness. 

In Victoria, we’ve been tracking congenital anomalies for 35 years, to help us better understand why they occur when they do, and to best inform prevention efforts.

Released today, our latest Congenital anomalies in Victoria report highlights that one in 22 babies in Victoria is affected by a major congenital anomaly among all the pregnancies reported to the Victorian Congenital Anomalies Register (VCAR). And the rate is increasing – from 3.1 per cent of all pregnancies in 2013-2014 to 4.5 per cent of all pregnancies in 2015-2016.

Read the report.

What do we know?

There are many factors that may increase the risk or chance of a baby being born with an abnormality. Congenital anomalies may occur at any stage during pregnancy, however the first three months when the baby is undergoing major organ development is a common time. Anomalies may happen for many different reasons and in many different ways. They may be discovered before birth or not known until the baby is born.

In Victoria, the significant risk factors for major congenital anomalies are increasing maternal age, obesity, pre-gestational diabetes (diabetes before pregnancy) and mother born in North Africa and Middle Eastern countries.

There are also environmental factors such as mothers being exposed to drugs, alcohol, smoking or infections such as rubella or social, nutritional and demographic factors such as increased maternal age, ethnicity, maternal obesity or being pre-diabetic.

The ever-increasing technology and new tests to detect changes that result in abnormalities is producing vital information that leads to a better understanding of what contributes to defects. This means that actions can be put in place to reduce or prevent the conditions happening in the future.

But this doesn’t give us the full picture.

Help us find out more

We ask healthcare services and practitioners who care for women and children to report all congenital anomalies in children from before birth to six years of age. This includes hospitals, maternal and child health nurses, paediatricians, cytogenetic laboratories and other professionals involved in maternal, newborn and child’s healthcare.

Reporting takes a matter of minutes, as we only require birth date, postcode, sex and anomaly. It can be done online at

From your information, we are able to provide ongoing review and advice related to the type of anomalies that are occurring and what education and strategies might be put in place to reduce abnormalities and promote healthy outcomes for babies.

Professor Susan McDonald is the Acting Chair, Consultative Council on Obstetric and Paediatric Mortality and Morbidity

The Consultative Council on Obstetric and Paediatric Mortality and Morbidity (CCOPMM) maintains the Victorian Congenital Anomalies Register.

Page last updated: 26 Jun 2018