Birth defects affect one in 33 babies every year and cause one in five infant deaths. While cigarettes, alcohol, and other drugs used during pregnancy have been linked to birth defects, the cause of most are still unknown. January is birth defects awareness month.

The 89th General Assembly addressed the number one killer of infants with birth defects when it passed legislation requiring birthing facilities to perform a pulse oximetry screening. Pulse oximetry , or "pulse ox," is a simple, non-invasive and painless test that is used to measure the percent oxygen saturation of hemoglobin in the arterial blood and the pulse rate. The screenings are used to detect congenital heart defects. Those heart defects can range from holes between the chambers of the heart to severe malformations such as complete absence of the heart.

Each year approximately 50 infants born in Arkansas will have a critical congenital heart defect. Early detection is key to saving lives. The legislation we passed will require the pulse oximetry screening to be conducted before a child leaves any hospital or birthing facility. Legislation aimed at detecting birth defects not only saves lives, but it also lowers health care cost. In the United States, birth defects account for over 139,000 hospital stays a year, resulting in $2.5 billion in hospital costs.

Screenings and improved technology can only go so far. Awareness efforts offer even more hope for reducing the number of birth defects in the future. The CDC recommends the following prevention strategies to all pregnant women and those who may become pregnant:

• Consume 400 micrograms of folic acid daily.

• Manage chronic maternal illnesses such as diabetes and seizure disorders.

• Reach and maintain a healthy weight.

• Talk to a health care provider about taking any medications, both prescription and over-the-counter.

• Avoid alcohol, smoking and illicit drugs.

• See a health care provider regularly.

• Avoid toxic substances at work or at home.

• Ensure protection against domestic violence.

• Know their family history and seek reproductive genetic counseling, if appropriate.

For more information visit the website of the National Birth Defects Prevention network at