Alpha-Fetoprotein Test During Pregnancy – Purpose, Procedure & Results

Written by Rakhee M • 

Pregnancy is a time of trials and tribulations, not to mention tests as well. So, if your doctor has recommended you an alpha-fetoprotein or AFP test during your pregnancy, you might want to read our post below. Because here, MomJunction has put together some valuable information about the AFP test and how it helps. Read on to know more about alpha fetoprotein test during pregnancy.

What Is An Alpha-Fetoprotein Test?

An alpha-fetoprotein or AFP is a screening blood test that measures AFP levels in pregnant women. AFP is a protein produced by fetal liver cells. The AFP level helps the doctors determine if the fetus has any congenital problems such as neural tube defects. AFP screening during pregnancy is often a part of triple or quad screening tests.

A screening test is not a diagnostic test. Screening tests help determine any birth defects and a need for further diagnostic tests. These screening tests occur during the 15th to 20th week of pregnancy. A triple screen test measures three substances in a pregnant woman’s blood – AFP, estriol (an estrogen) and hormone human chorionic gonadotropin (hCG). A quad test measures these three and also inhibin A hormone [1].

[ Read: Amniocentesis Test During Pregnancy ]

Purpose Of An Alpha FetoProtein Test In Pregnancy:

Your doctor may advise an AFP test for several reasons, some of which include:

High or low values of AFP in your blood can mean that the gestational age of the baby is incorrect, and your doctor may then correct it with the help of an ultrasound [2]. High AFP levels can also indicate multiple pregnancies [3].

An AFP test can defect anencephaly or spina bifida. Anencephaly is a condition where the spinal cord or the brain of the baby does not develop fully. This condition can increase your risk of stillbirth and endanger your baby’s life after birth [4]. In spina bifida, the spinal bones fail to develop properly. In severe cases, it can lead to nerve damage and serious health problems [5].

An AFP test can also indicate omphalocele in a baby. Omphalocele is a congenital problem where parts of a baby’s intestines protrude through the belly button. Omphalocele can occur in the early stages of the pregnancy (between 6 to 11 weeks). It can cause infections and hinder organ development [6].

Low AFP can also indicate that your baby suffers from Down syndrome, a genetic condition that can cause developmental delays [7].

[ Read: Genetic Testing During Pregnancy ]

Who Needs An AFP Test During Pregnancy?

An AFP test during pregnancy is not always necessary.

Your doctor may recommend an AFP test for you in the following scenario:

  • You or your partner has a family history of specific birth defects.
  • You are over 35 years of age when pregnant.
  • You have suffered a viral infection or used harmful medicines during pregnancy.
  • You have experienced radiation exposure when pregnant.
  • You have diabetes and use insulin to manage it.

Benefits Of AFP Testing During Pregnancy:

Your doctor may recommend you an AFP test based on one or more of the reasons mentioned above [8]. Depending on the test results, you can make changes to or plans for your pregnancy and beyond [9].

  • If your baby’s congenital defects are severe, you may want to decide if you want to carry your pregnancy to full term.
  • You may want to schedule fetal surgery for conditions like spina bifida.
  • With results of an AFP test, you can begin to plan for a child with special needs. You can start reading on the subject or meet with a counselor to help you prepare for the changes ahead.

An AFP test is certainly not a requirement during pregnancy. But it can help you protect your baby with intervention surgeries or plan for unexpected lifestyle changes that come with a baby with special needs. The choice is yours, but you can always talk to your doctor or a genetic expert for more guidance.

Did you have an AFP test during your pregnancy? Did it help? Tell us below.

[ Read: Sequential Screening During Pregnancy ]

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