French surgeons successfully operate on 20-week fetus to correct spina bifida

French surgeons have successfully operated on a fetus in its mother’s womb – for the first time in the country. They have corrected a defect which could lead to the baby’s legs being paralyzed – a procedure available in only a dozen hospitals worldwide.

The fetus was suffering from the congenital disorder spina bifida, which can cause partial or total paralysis of the legs, and the congestion of cerebrospinal fluid in the brain.

Incisions were made to the mother’s uterus and the fetus, and the baby’s spinal cord was covered and closed by surrounding skin and tissue.

“Ten days after the surgery, the brain anomalies [in the fetus] that were caused by the disorder had disappeared,” doctor Jean-Marie Jouannic told AFP.

“It’s incredible to be able to protect this little girl’s brain to enable future learning,” he added.

The procedure was conducted in July, but the hospital’s officials have just disclosed the information after the baby girl was successfully born at full term on November 9. Her mother is fine as well, doctors who performed the unique procedure said, France 24 reported.

Spina bifida means that the bones of the spine aren’t fully formed, opening the nerves. This, in turn, may cause damage to the spine, as the baby moves inside the womb.

It is one of the most frequent neurological congenital defects, occurring in one of every 1,000 pregnancies in France, and one in 1,500 in the US, according to AFP.

The majority of parents in France reportedly prefer to terminate the pregnancy if the disorder is diagnosed, but still about 40 babies with the defect are born in the country yearly.

In May, the procedure was performed on the UK woman, but she needed to go to Belgium to have the operation: at the time, the Leuven Teaching Hospital was one in only four European facilities to carry out such a procedure.