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Who Should Seek Genetic Counseling, and Why?

April 6, 2012

Between recent technologies, new research, and loads of information available at the click of a mouse, pregnant women are experiencing a very different set of options and restrictions from their mothers and grandmothers. Hopefully, you trust your doctor and are making regular prenatal visits. If so, you’re probably excited about, and just a little overwhelmed by the ultrasounds and scans to come! And your doctor’s office has likely given you a brochure and a brief talk about genetic counseling. It’s not an option for everyone, but if a pregnant woman finds it necessary and seeks it out, genetic counseling can be a valuable tool in planning for the health of your child.

Genetic counseling is an option for families who want to determine their risk of passing an inheritable condition to their baby. Families can meet with a counselor who has earned their Master’s in medical genetics and counseling, and has been certified by the American Board of Genetic Counseling. At a genetic counseling session, you and your partner will provide family medical history to enable a counselor to assess the likelihood of passing a genetic disorder to your baby. Your counselor can not only evaluate your risk, but can also interpret the impact that the condition might have on your baby and your family, and review your options going forward. You may opt to have blood tests done to assess whether you are a carrier for certain illnesses, and if there is a risk of passing along a particular condition, your counselor will discuss the outlook for your baby and your medical options.

Not everyone is an ideal candidate for genetic testing. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), 3% of babies born in the U.S. present with genetic defects. But some couples may decide that they would like to seek out counseling because of a chromosomal defect discovered through amniocentesis. Others may be aware of a genetic illness they carry, or which is present in their family histories. And some ethnic groups are at a higher risk for certain conditions and may want to be tested. African-Americans sometimes carry a gene that causes sickle cell anemia, Ashkenazi Jews can carry Tay-Sachs disease, and people of Italian, Greek, and Middle-Eastern descent can carry Thalassemia.

The decision to seek genetic counseling is a very personal one, and expectant parents should be aware that it can be an emotional process. Genetic counselors are trained to help your family through some of the complex emotions and decisions that may be involved, and always, the focus is on generating the most positive outcome available for your family. Not everyone should seek genetic counseling, but for those at an increased risk for certain disorders, knowing what the future may hold and how to plan for it can be a productive tool and an asset to the health of your growing family.

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