Racial and Ethnic Differences in the Occurrence of Major Birth Defects

3 pregnant women making a heart with their hands over there stomach

The American Journal of Public Health published a new study that examined the occurrence of major birth defects across multiple racial and ethnic groups. Using 12 state-based birth defects tracking systems, this is to date the largest study conducted to look at racial and ethnic differences in the United States for a range of birth defects.

Read the abstract for the study hereexternal icon.

Main Findings from this Study

  • Compared with non-Hispanic whites, American Indians/Alaska Natives had a significantly higher occurrence of:
  • Cubans and Asians, especially Chinese and Asian Indians, had significantly lower occurrence of many of the studied birth defects, compared to non-Hispanic whites.
  • Some of the studied birth defects had very different rates of occurrence across the racial and ethnic groups (either much higher or much lower occurrence compared to non-Hispanic whites). Conditions that showed substantial variation across the racial and ethnic groups include anotia/microtia, spina bifida (a defect of the spine), and Down syndrome.
  • The researchers recommend further investigation to determine why there appeared to be a relatively high occurrence of certain birth defects in American Indians/Alaska Natives.
Birth defects that have significantly higher or lower occurrence in selected racial and ethnic groups, compared to non-Hispanic white:
Much higher occurrence1 Much lower occurrence2
Non-Hispanic American Indian/Alaskan Native
Non-Hispanic Asian
Non-Hispanic Black

1 These conditions were found to have statistically significantly higher occurrences in the noted races and ethnicities compared to non-Hispanic white
2 These conditions were found to have statistically significantly lower occurrences in the noted races and ethnicities compared to non-Hispanic white.
Note: Even though programs try to collect information on all occurrences, some birth defects might not be captured by programs if the outcome is not a live birth. This could underestimate the occurrences of some birth defects.

Baby on mom's shoulder

About this Study

  • Researchers used data from 12 population-based birth defects tracking programs. Population-based means that the researchers look at all babies with birth defects who live in a defined study area, in order to get a complete picture of what is happening among all of the people (the population) living in the study area. Participating states were: Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Georgia (some counties), Illinois, Massachusetts, New York, North Carolina, and Texas. This study included 13.5 million live U.S. births from 1999 to 2007, meaning 1 of every 3 births in the United States during that time period was included in the study.
  • This is the most comprehensive study to date to examine racial and ethnic variation for a wide range of birth defects in the United States, particularly among under-studied racial and ethnic groups including American Indians/Alaska natives, Hispanic subgroups, and Asian subgroups.

About Birth Defects

Birth defects are common, costly, and critical conditions that affect 1 in every 33 babies born in the United States each year. Birth defects are structural changes present at birth that can affect almost any part or parts of the body (such as the heart, brain, face, arms, and legs). They may affect how the body looks, works, or both.

Our Work

CDC’s National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities (NCBDDD) saves babies by preventing birth defects. NCBDDD identifies causes of birth defects, finds opportunities to prevent them, and improves the health of those living with birth defects. Learn how NCBDDD makes a difference by visiting https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/aboutus/saving-babies/index.html.

Reference for Key Findings

Canfield MA, Mai CT, Wang Y, O’Halloran M, Marengo LK, Olney RS, Borger CL, Rutkowski R, Fornoff J, Irwin N, Copeland G, Flood TJ, Meyer RE, Rickard R, Alverson CJ, Sweatlock J, Kirby RS. The Association Between Race/Ethnicity and Major Birth Defects in the United States, 1999-2007. American Journal of Public Health. 2014 [epub ahead of print].