What Is Polydactyly?

Several news organisations in India and overseas reported the story of a 63-year-old woman in a village in Odisha who, according to the reports, had been ostracised by the community as a “witch” because she was born with 12 fingers and 20 toes. The woman’s condition is known as polydactyly/polydactylism or hyperdactyly, a birth defect in which humans and animals have supernumerary fingers or toes. In other words, a person suffering from the congenital anomaly of polydactyly will have more than five digits in a particular hand or foot — a condition opposite to oligodactyly, in which the sufferer has fewer than five digits in a hand or foot. Polydactylism is reported in perhaps one or two children per 1,000 live births, and could be the most common abnormality of development seen in newborns worldwide. The defect develops during the sixth or seventh week of gestation, when an irregularity occurs in the splitting of the fingers from the hand or foot, creating an extra digit. Causes are believed to be genetic, in some cases hereditary. The defect is also seen in cats, dogs, cattle, sheep, pigs, chickens, geese, and sometimes horses. The extra digit is only rarely fully functional; most often it is a small piece of soft tissue that sometimes also has a bone and, in a small number of cases, a bone with a joint. In most cases, the extra digits can be surgically removed; the procedure gets more challenging if there is bone with the skin and tissue, and most difficult when the bone has a joint. Stories of stigma associated with the condition are often reported; the stigma is most commonly seen among poor and less literate communities. In December 2018, a newborn baby girl died in a tribal hamlet in Khandwa, Madhya Pradesh, after her mother allegedly cut off the extra fingers and toes with which the child had been born, apparently for fear that no one would marry her when she grew up.

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