Birth defects an increasing concern for China physicians

PHOTO: Birth defects an increasing concern for China physicians

BEIJING - China has seen the rate of birth defects increase by more than 70 per cent between 1996 and 2010.

"The percentage of infant deaths associated with congenital disorders has also been rising on the mainland," said Fu Wei, deputy director of women and children's care and the community health department of the Ministry of Health.

Currently, 800,000 to 1.2 million babies are born with various birth defects each year on the mainland, accounting for 4 to 6 per cent of births, Deputy Minister of Health Liu Qian said at a recent news conference.

From 1996 to 2010, the rate of birth defects increased from 87.7 per 10,000 births to 149.9 per 10,000 births, according to the Ministry of Health.

Commonly reported defects include neural tube defects, congenital heart disease, cleft lip, hydrocephalus and Mediterranean anemia, said health experts.

Of the babies affected, around 30 per cent can be cured and 40 per cent would have deformities. The rest couldn't survive long after birth, said Zhu Jun, deputy director of the National Maternal and Child Health Surveillance Office.

She urged young couples to undergo premarital medical examinations, which help detect those at potential risk of having babies with particular genetic disorders.

"That should be the first fortress to curb birth defects," she said.

Last week, media reports said Guangdong province would resume compulsory premarital checkups mainly to prevent birth defects.

However, local health authorities in Guangdong denied that it is compulsory, but they highly recommend couples have the checkups.

Nationwide, compulsory premarital medical checkups were halted in 2003 and many couples simply skipped them before getting married.

Local health administrations have tried different means to encourage premarital medical examinations like offering the service for free, said Minister of Health Chen Zhu at a conference on women and children's health last week.

As a result, the rate of checkups among couples has climbed to 31 per cent in 2010 from 2.9 per cent in 2005, statistics from the ministry showed.

"More efforts both in surveillance and intervention are needed to reverse the situation," said Zhu Jun. "Compared with industrial countries, Chinese newborns are hit relatively hard by birth defects."

In the United States, about 0.68 per cent of babies are born with defects, only a fraction of that in China.

Complex factors such as low awareness, insufficient consumption of folic acid among pregnant women, rising environment pollution, and unhealthy lifestyles are to blame, experts said.

In response, the government in 2009 initiated early intervention programs distributing free folic acid among pregnant women in rural areas to reduce neural tube defects.