Health experts have cautioned pregnant women against getting exposed to radiation, noting that it can cause stillbirth and other health complications.
According to the experts, swallowing or breathing in any substance that has the capability of emitting radiation is dangerous in pregnancy as it could lead to the death of the baby in the womb.
One of the experts, a Professor of Radiation Medicine at the College of Medicine, University of Nigeria, Nsukka, Ifeoma Okoye, urged pregnant women to begin to take radiation exposure seriously because it has severe health consequences.
According to the radiologist, when a woman accidentally ingests radioactive materials, she may absorb it into her bloodstream and it may pass through the umbilical cord to the foetus.
She, however, noted that this only occurs in severe cases and also, depends on how much radiation the foetus is exposed to.
Also speaking with PUNCH HealthWise, Prof. Okoye, who is the founding director of the University of Nigeria Centre for Clinical Trial, said, “The baby can die when a woman accidentally swallows or breathes in radioactive materials like cesium, cobalt, radium, uranium and many others.
“If a woman that is pregnant does this, she may absorb that substance into her bloodstream, when it is in the mother’s blood, the radioactive materials may pass through the umbilical cord to the baby or it can concentrate in areas of the mother’s body near the ovaries like the urinary bladder because the urinary bladder will secrete it and expose the foetus to the indirect radiation.
“Death occurs in very severe cases depending on how much radiation the foetus was exposed to and, also if the mother ingests radiation materials and it is transferred through the umbilical cord to the baby,” the expert said.
Prof. Okoye stated further that a foetus could also be at risk of developing other health consequences when exposed to too much radiation in the womb.
Too much radiation, she said, is equivalent to an individual having 500 chest x-rays.
She, however, noted that the possibility of these health effects depends on the gestational age that is, how far the pregnancy has gone.
Okoye said, “For the foetus, it depends on the gestational stage, the health consequences of exposure have to be at bases that are greater than 0.5 gy.
“It can be severe, even if such a dose is too low to cause an immediate effect for the mother, it can affect the foetus.
“In a general sense, babies are particularly sensitive to radiation during their early development which is between week two and week 18.
“Most literature will leave it at eight to 18 weeks in pregnancy because at two weeks, most people aren’t aware they are pregnant.”
“When a foetus is exposed to large doses of radiation at this stage, the health consequences can be severe, especially to the brain of the foetus.
“The health consequences can include stunted growth like intrauterine growth restriction meaning the development of the baby is not in sync with the age of the pregnancy. A malformation can also occur leading to the baby having impaired brain function. In the long term, radiation exposure can also lead to cancer,” the professor said.
Okoye recalled the detonation of atomic bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, noting that it has continued to cause serious health effects for generations several years after.
“We still have children who are born with the distant part of the arm absent, that is from the elbow part to the fingers, also, they were found to have a high rate of brain damage that resulted in lower IQ and even severe mental retardation.
“They also suffer stunted growth up to four per cent shorter than average people and an increased risk of organ birth defects. Those are some of the kinds of birth defects we have seen,” she said.
In the gestational age group of week 18 to week 26, Okoye said, “Unborn babies are less sensitive during some stages of pregnancy than others.
“So in this stage of pregnancy, health consequences similar to those seen in eight to 18 weeks could occur, but only when the doses are extremely high which would be equivalent to 5,000 chest x-rays received at one time.”
The radiologist further added saying, “At this level of dosage, a mother could be showing signs of acute radiation syndrome also known as radiation sickness and this can generally happen to anyone who is exposed to radiation with or without pregnancy.”
According to Prof. Okoye, after week 26 of pregnancy, the radiation sensitivity of the foetus is similar to that of a newborn. This, the expert said, means that the genetic defects cannot rise from the stage of 26 weeks and above.
“At week 26 of pregnancy, the foetus is fully developed though not fully grown. It is at this stage 26 to 28 weeks, that you can actually deliver a child and the child would survive given the right circumstances.
“So an unborn baby exposed to radiation in the womb during this stage of pregnancy is no more sensitive to the effects of radiation and this means that birth defects are unlikely to occur from 26 weeks and above and only a slight increase in the risk of having cancer later on in life will be expected.”
“So between the eighteenth week of pregnancy and birth, radiation-induced health effects besides cancer are unlikely, unless the foetus receives an extremely large dose of radiation,” she said.
Prof Okoye stressed that the occurrence of cardiovascular diseases and cancer due to exposure to too much radiation is only possible in the long term and not immediate.
“At the end of the day, it may or may not result in cancer and if it is cancer, it won’t be immediate but it will be in the long term.
“It can also result in long-term health issues such as cardiovascular diseases,” she said.
Speaking in the same vein in an interview with our correspondent, a Consultant Obstetrician and Gynaecologist, Dr. Stanley Egbogu, said,
“Radiation generally is not good for normal people let alone in pregnancy. The risk is even more because there’s the baby and the mother.”
“Once there is radiation exposure, the baby will be malformed, and the baby could have heart conditions. If it is during the development stage, the baby can have limb deformities, also, the baby might be born blind or the eye can be deformed which means there might be difficulty seeing,” the expert said.
Egbogu who works at the Nnamdi Azikiwe Teaching Hospital, Nnewi, added saying, “It is a very serious issue because radiation affects every part of the body even the brain development and in the worst-case scenario, the baby might die in the mother’s womb.”
Radiation, Egbogu said can also affect the mother.
The expert said, “It can affect the genital tract. The reproductive organs like the ovaries can get damaged and after that particular pregnancy, the woman may have difficulty getting pregnant again. It can also affect the kidneys of the mother and baby.”
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