January 21, 2006“Global epidemic” of birth defects

Every year, almost 8 million babies are born with some kind of birth defect, leading experts to call it an epidemic of global proportions. More than 3 million of these babies die, and many of those who survive have such serious mental and physical disabilities that poverty and suffering are their destinies.

Birth defects most often involve deformities of the heart and spine, and blood disorders. Up to 70% are preventable by the application of public health measures and basic medical technologies, says Dr. Jennifer Howse, president of the March of Dimes. Most babies with birth defects are in the developing world, and prevalence ranges from 40 per 1,000 live births in France to double that in Sudan.

The children in question can have various birth defects, of which there are more than 7,000, including cerebral palsy and Erb’s palsy. While some are of genetic origin, many others can be traced to social and environmental factors—which means they could be prevented. Here are two examples: Most neural-tube defects come from dietary deficiencies; one of them, spina bifida, can be prevented in large part by adding folic acid to flour. And the addition of iodine to salt lessens the incidence of hyperthyroidism, which in turn can lead to mental retardation.

Birth defects are known to increase in blood-relative marriages. The risk of having a baby with Down syndrome rises with the age of the mother, which can be relieved by access to birth control. Furthermore, conditions like rubella can be easily reduced by vaccinations. Social factors such as the use of tobacco and alcohol also contribute to the number of babies suffering from birth defects.

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