The March of Dimes Reports Over Eight Million Children Born with Birth Defects Worldwide Each Year

In what is being called “the first in-depth analysis of the global impact of birth defects,” by a number of sources like HealthDay News, the March of Dimes is reporting that over 8 million children worldwide are born with a serious genetic or partly genetic birth defect each year.

The report, titled The March of Dimes Global Report on Birth Defects: The Hidden Toll of Dying and Disabled Children, states at least 3.3 million children under 5 years old die every year from serious birth defects.

According to Christopher P. Howson, vice president for Global Programs at the March of Dimes: “This is the very first report ever to document the harsh reality of birth defects worldwide. We wanted to document the toll because it is hidden. We wanted to bring this hidden toll to light. We wanted to bring this toll to the attention of governments, international health agencies and the public.” (HealthDay News 1/30).

Formerly an exclusively U.S. organization, the March of Dimes established itself as a international association in 1998 with the founding of its Office of Global Programs that now spearheads its work to prevent birth defects on four continents.

While there many programs exist globally to help prevent birth defects, Howson said, “these activities are fragmented, piece-meal. And what has been lacking has been the data to provide an impetus to get attention for the problem.” (HealthDay News 1/30)

According to the report, the impact of birth defects is particularly severe in “middle- and low-income countries.” Statistically, middle- and low-income countries account for over 94% of serious birth defects and 95% of the deaths due to birth defects.

The database used to compile the report considered the prevalence and number of birth defects in 193 countries.

In 2001, five specific birth defects, caused in whole or in part by genetics, made up some 26% of congenital heart problems, neural tube defects such as spina bifida, hemoglobin disorders (including sickle disease), Down syndrome, and glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase deficiency (G6PD).

Although not statistically precise without further, more detailed information, the approximate comparison of the incidence of all genetic birth defects (per live births) worldwide, ranged from a high of 82/1,000 (8.2%) in low-income countries to a low of 39.7/1,000 (3.97%) in high-income nations.

To go along with the development of education programs, some broad recommendations the study authors proposed to reduce the enormous number of birth defects are: folic acid supplementation to prevent neural tube defects; immunization against rubella (German measles); and iodination of salt to prevent congenital low thyroid.

Howson estimated that 70% of birth defects could be prevented, treated or ameliorated “if the recommendations in this report are adopted.” As an example, he pointed to the U.S. experience where education and intervention initiatives have proven quite successful in reducing mortality from birth defects some 62% between 1962 and 2001.

According to HealthDay News, Dr. Jose Cordero, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities, said the report should help “policymakers realize the impact that birth defects have on infant mortality.”

“He also said he thought it would ‘help people understand that birth defects can be prevented and that there are many missed opportunities for preventing birth defects.’ He, too, called for folic acid supplementation and the rubella vaccine, among other measures.”

Howson emphasized that individuals could play a vital role in the battle against birth defects if women would avoid alcohol and smoking during pregnancy, take 400 micrograms of folic acid a day during their childbearing years, and seek early prenatal care.

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