Birth defects are common, costly and critical health challenges globally and particularly in the South-East Asia Region that reported 49,000 newborn deaths due to birth defects in 2013. But a large number of these deaths can be prevented with cost effective measures through the existing health care systems. The first World Birth Defects Day was observed on 03 March this year to put the spotlight on this under-recognised problem. WHO urged countries to take measures to prevent as well as minimise the sufferings of children born with birth defects, with timely and appropriate care.
The most common birth defects are heart defects, neural tube defects and Down’s syndrome, with 94 percent of the severe ones occurring in middle and low resource settings. Infants who survive with birth defects suffer long-term disability which impairs them, their families and societies due to the social and economic consequences.
The World Birth Defects Day is an initiative of 12 global health organisations to raise awareness about the occurrence of birth defects, develop and implement primary prevention programs, and expand referral and care services for all persons with birth defects.
The problem can only be addressed with a multidisciplinary, multisectoral and multiple programme approach with services involving health, nutrition, food industry, social welfare sectors and civil society, as multiple factors cause birth defects. Socioeconomic conditions where mothers are susceptible to malnutrition, iodine deficiency, folic acid insufficiency other health conditions such as obesity and diabetes, infections such as rubella, and environmental factors such as exposure to pesticides, medications, alcohol, tobacco are leading causes of birth defects. Advanced maternal age causes Downs syndrome in babies while cultural practices such as marriages between first cousins increases the risk of serious birth defects.
Addressing birth defects is also a key to reducing infant mortality rate and achieving the Millennium Development Goal 4, to which all countries are committed.