World Birth Defects Day on 3 March comes amid the global spotlight on Zika virus disease and its strongly suspected causal relation with clusters of microcephaly and other neurological abnormalities. Microcephaly is one of many birth defects. Globally, 1 in 33 new-borns have birth defects and an estimated 276 000 babies die within the first month as a result of them. Yet, birth defects remain under-recognized.
The most common birth defects in WHO South-East Asia Region are heart defects, neural tube defects and Down’s syndrome, with the most severe defects occurring in middle and low resource settings. Birth defects are a major cause of still-births and neonatal mortality. Those who survive birth defects often suffer long-term disability. These deaths and life-long sufferings cause untold miseries to individuals and families, and have negative socio-economic consequences.
Birth defects can be genetic, infectious, nutritional or environmental in origin. Creating awareness among the public on the causes of birth defects and empowering them to take preventive measures is an important step to reducing their prevalence. Many birth defects can be prevented by taking appropriate measures before and during pregnancy. Timely and cost effective measures can help prevent deaths and cure or minimize the effects of birth defects. Rubella vaccination, adequate intake of folic acid, iodine through fortification of staple foods and salt or supplements, and adequate antenatal care are keys steps for prevention of birth defects.
Simultaneously, making quality health care services available to provide early care for children born with birth defects can go a long way in reducing their burden.
In 2010, the World Health Assembly adopted a resolution on birth defects calling all countries to promote primary prevention and improve the health of children with congenital anomalies.
Focusing efforts in this area in the South-East Asia Region, WHO has established a web-based new-born and birth defect (NBBD) surveillance network in 150 hospitals in 8 countries with the support of the CDC-USA. In view of WHO declaring clusters of microcephaly in Latin America as Public Health Emergency of International Concern on 1 February, an online system has been added to the NBBD network to report on head circumference in all births. This is to monitor the occurrence of microcephaly in the South-East Asia Region.
The World Birth Defects Day, initiated by global health organizations last year, is aimed at creating awareness on birth defects which continues to be an important cause of childhood death, chronic illness and disability in many countries. The day is a reminder to all of us to further commit our efforts towards ensuring a healthy and birth-defects free life for every new-born.