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October 31, 2018 (Society for the Protection of Unborn Children) – In a week that has seen two parliamentary attempts to strip protections from unborn babies, especially in Northern Ireland, the press has been celebrating surgeons' ability to operate on babieswith spina bifida in the womb.

Huge operation

For the first time in the UK, surgeons have repaired the abnormally developed spines of two babies with open spina bifida, in separate operations this summer. Both sets of mums and babies are doing well, according to a statement by University College London Hospital (UCLH).

The operations brought together researchers from UCL working with NHS clinicians from UCLH and Great Ormond Street Hospital in partnership with University Hospitals Leuven in Belgium to carry out the operations in the UK for the first time.

Up until now, operations to repair the gap in the spine that develops as a result of spina bifida has been carried out after birth in the UK. However, the earlier it is repaired the better for long-term health and mobility. “It's fantastic,” said UCL Professor Anne David, who has worked on bringing the surgery to the UK for three years. “Women now don't have to travel out of the UK. They can have their family with them. There are less expenses. So all good things.”

How is the surgery done?

“Operating in the womb involves opening the uterus, exposing the spina bifida without delivering the baby, closing the defect and then repairing the uterus to leave the baby safely inside”, said lead fetal surgeon Jan Deprest of UCLH and Leuven. “Closure of spina bifida in the womb using this method is an alternative to postnatal surgery, and has been shown to improve short and medium-term outcomes.”

Researchers are also exploring less invasive keyhole surgery methods.

The 2017 Abortion statistics for England and Wales list spina bifida as the principal medical condition for 148 babies who were aborted that year because of disability. 

Published with permission from the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children.

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