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Prenatal ultrasound portraits: Darling or dangerous?

Angela and Michael watched with joy as their second child sucked its thumb and kicked up its toes. Their delight was however, tempered with some disappointment as they could not completely see their baby’s face.

“My placenta obstructed the view of the head, the forehead, and the eyes,” says Angela, who is seven months pregnant. She and her husband went to a private ob-gyn clinic in Westlands that performs keepsake prenatal ultrasounds. For Sh20,000, the couple was promised four 5X7 photos and a 30-minute videotape of their little one in the womb, set to lullaby music. Plus, since they had a blurry image of the baby’s face, they were offered a repeat visit at no charge.

Hundreds of parents like Michael and Angela have taken advantage of the latest ultrasound technology to get a sneak peek of their unborn children. Compared to the traditional 2-D images, the 3-D portraits and videos offer much more detail of the foetuses’ features, such as the face, fingers, toes, heart, and genitals. They also promise to highlight endearing womb activity such as yawns, winks, kicks, rubbing of noses, and thumb sucking. These keepsake ultrasounds have become so popular that dozens of sites are opening up in major cities offering this service.

However, several medical organisations, including the FDA, have come out against these so-called entertainment sonograms with research suggesting prenatal ultrasound exposure may cause delayed speech in children and left-handedness in boys. The FDA has further said it is illegal for anyone to promote, sell, or lease ultrasound equipment for the purpose of making keepsake fetal videos, particularly if there is no medical prescription. This is because, a woman might get a keepsake ultrasound, and thinking that her baby is fine, fail to see a doctor. Another concern has to do with abnormalities that may be detected during entertainment ultrasounds.

Non-medical personnel may not be able to provide proper counseling to patients. Even a prior medical ultrasound does not guarantee a normal outcome at the next screening. If a woman gets a prescription from her obstetrician to get a keepsake ultrasound done, then that is fine, says Dr Sang a top Obstetrician in Nairobi. “There, however, needs to be some oversight from a licensed medical professional,” he said.

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