- The Washington Times - Monday, January 30, 2006

The overwhelming majority of child deaths from birth defects occur in the world’s lower-income countries, according to a new report released last week by the March of Dimes.

Although life-threatening birth defects appear worldwide, more than 95 percent of deaths relating to those defects are in middle- and low-income countries, according to the survey of about 190 countries.

“The purpose of this report is to reveal the harsh and hidden effects of birth defects worldwide,” said Christopher P. Howson, vice president for global programs at the March of Dimes and co-author of the new report.

Among the countries with the highest prevalence of birth defects are Sudan, Benin and Burkina Faso. Some wealthier countries, such as Saudi Arabia, also recorded high rates of birth defects.

Mr. Howson said the report was designed to dispel perceptions that focusing attention on birth defects will take funding from other important public-health efforts.

“Reducing child birth defects contributes to the entire population’s health,” he said.

The March of Dimes report estimates that 8 million children are born annually with life-threatening birth defects of genetic or partially genetic origin.

Thousands more are born with defects resulting from the mother’s exposure to environmental factors, such as alcohol, rubella and syphilis.

At least 3.3 million children younger than 5 die annually from severe birth defects, according to the report, while 3.2 million children face lifelong mental or physical disabilities.

Recommendations for cutting into those figures in the report include public-education campaigns, better nutrition for women during their childbearing years and training for physicians and health care workers treat infants with birth defects.

Although poorer nations may lack the resources to implement some of the recommendations, the March of Dimes report argues that major improvements can be made within existing health care systems.

For example, the report notes that health care providers can be quickly trained in basic birth-defect diagnostic and preventative techniques that are widely available.

“We hope that the findings we have laid out will allow partners like the World Health Organization and others to act on these problems and develop consistent policies in this area,” Mr. Howson said.

Although much research has been done of birth defects, the March of Dimes survey is the first of its kind to study genetic and partially genetic birth defect figures in a systematic way.

“This is a severe problem,” Mr. Howson said. “We hope this report will markedly reduce child-mortality rates.”

Dr. Jose F. Cordero, assistant surgeon general at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, called the March of Dimes study helpful, adding, “It heightens awareness that the causes are preventable.”

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