January 30, 2006

Nearly 8 million children born with defects: study

By Maggie Fox, Health and Science Correspondent

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Nearly 8 million children are born with birth defects around the world every year and most of them either die or are disabled for life as a result, according to a report released on Monday.

With proper medical care up to 70 percent of these defects could be prevented, or at least treated, the report from the March of Dimes said.

"An estimated 7.9 million children are born annually with a serious birth defect of genetic or partially genetic origin," the report said.

"More than 90 percent of all infants with a serious birth defect are born in middle- and low-income countries," the report added.

"Because most of these countries do not have adequate services to care for infants and children with birth defects, many of them will die young."

The March of Dimes, a charity whose goal is to eliminate birth defects, said 3.3 million deaths every year are associated with birth defects and another 3.2 million children born with defects become disabled.

Proper medical care and nutrition could prevent many of these, the report said.

"For example, structural birth defects including congenital heart defects, congenital cataracts, cleft lip and palate and clubfoot, can be corrected with pediatric surgery," it said.

Treatments are also available for sickle cell disease, which causes misshapen red blood cells, thyroid disease and other problems.

"In the United States alone, fortification of the grain supply with folic acid has produced a one-third decline in neural tube defects each year, with an overall cost savings calculated at $400 million annually," the report said.

In the United States, the infant mortality rate from birth defects fell 46 percent between 1980 and 2001, the March of Dimes said.

Four of the most common defects seen in 2001 were congenital heart defects, affecting more than a million newborns; neural tube defects which affected more than 300,000; Down Syndrome; and the blood diseases thalassemia and sickle cell disease.

Sudan had the highest rate of birth defects, with 82 per 1,000 live births. Saudi Arabia and Benin followed. The three countries with the lowest rates of birth defects were Australia, Austria and France, with around 40 per 1,000 live births.