BEIJING - Despite progress in narrowing the maternal and child health gap between urban and rural areas, China still faces challenges to conquer birth defects as well as infant and young child mortality, a senior official from the Ministry of Health said on Friday.
"Although the mortality rate of children younger than 5 has met the target set in the Millennium Development Goals of the United Nations ahead of schedule, it is still very high because of the large population base in China," Fu Wei, deputy director of Women and Children Care and Community Health Department under the health ministry, told a news conference.
China signed the joint declaration in 2000, aiming for a two-thirds reduction in the death rate of children younger than 5 in 2015 compared with the figure in 1990.
Official statistics showed the infant mortality rate was 1.3 per cent last year, and birth defects are to blame in 20 to 30 per cent of the cases.
"The per centage of infant death caused by birth defects is rising in the country," Fu said.
China has a high incidence of birth defects.
About 800,000 to 1.2 million children are born with congenital malformations every year, which accounts for around 5 per cent of the total births. In the US in 2009, the comparable figure was 0.68 per cent.
Both genetic and environmental factors trigger congenital disorders, and nutritional deficiency and a weak sense of self-protection make rural areas more vulnerable, say experts of maternity and child health.
"In addition to poor nutrition intake, women at childbearing age in the countryside are less familiar with health knowledge, including prescribed medication, and keeping away from radiation exposure and environmental pollution," said Zhu Jun, director of the National Maternal and Child Health Surveillance Office.
In response, the Ministry of Health launched early intervention for pregnant women in the countryside to prevent congenital disorders in 2009.
Women who are prepared for pregnancy in rural areas have been offered free folic acid from three months before their pregnancy to three months after their pregnancy, said Fu.
"A newborn is more prone to congenital defects, such as neural tube defect, if the mother lacks the acid in her blood," said Zhu, adding the acid supplement prior to pregnancy and during early pregnancy is the most desirable way to prevent birth defects.
Statistics from the health ministry showed the incidence of neural tube defect in rural areas went down by nearly 13 per cent last year, which was more than the national decrease of 11 per cent.
Officials said the ministry will provide sustainable support to grassroots medical institutions by improving obstetric facilities and the ability to transfer critically ill pregnant women, and eventually help reduce infant mortality.