May 29, 2014
Article by Global Pre-Meds
Hospital doctor shadowing & global health experience programs.
It’s every mother’s worst fear that her baby may be born with a congenital disorder or a birth defect. This fear cuts across all countries irrespective of how rich or poor they may be. However, there is one significant difference between babies born in affluent, developed countries and babies born in developing countries. Developed countries have the money and highly skilled experts who employ advanced medical techniques to rectify the abnormality and give the baby the best chance possible of living a normal life. This is not the case in many of the poorer countries of the world where lack of resources, money, equipment and skilled professionals mean that prospects for the baby’s future are dim.
Giving newborns a fighting chance to overcome their congenital anomalies is something that the World Health Organisation is striving to achieve. To obtain this end, they are collaborating with various organisations across the world to investigate and prevent birth defects and to lessen the impact of their consequences.
A look at the global facts on congenital malformations, published by the WHO reveals some disturbing facts:
– Birth defects affect approximately one in 33 infants.
– These congenital anomalies result in an estimated 3.2 million birth defect-related disabilities every year.
– Every year, about 270,000 newborns die within the first month of life due to defects at birth.
– Congenital anomalies often result in long-term disability, which have significant, long term ramifications on individuals and families as well as entire health-care systems and societies.
– The most common severe birth defects include Down syndrome, neural tube defects and heart defects.
Considering that most congenital abnormalities can be prevented, these statistics are alarming and unacceptable. In most cases, basic antenatal care, vaccination and adequate intake of folic acid and iodine are keys for prevention.
It is often difficult to establish the exact cause of the anomaly but the most common causes may be genetic, environmental or due to an infection.
Some of the known causes and risk factors include:
– Socioeconomic factors – This is the most predominant cause of birth defects as is illustrated by the higher incidence in resource constrained families and countries.
– Advanced Maternal Age – Advanced maternal age increases the risk of some chromosomal abnormalities, particularly Down syndrome.
– Genetic factors – Relationship by blood, such as first cousin unions, increases the incidence of rare genetic birth defects and almost doubles the risk for neonatal and childhood death and intellectual disability.
– Infections – In low and middle income countries, material infections such as rubella and syphilis are a significant cause of congenital abnormalities.
– Maternal nutrition – Low levels of folate and iodine are strongly linked to some birth defects. For example neural tube defects are the result of folate insufficiency.
– Environmental factors – Pregnant women are more likely to give birth to babies with congenital anomalies if they are exposed to certain medications, tobacco, alcohol or pesticides. High doses of radiation or working or living near mines, smelters or waste sites are also significant risk factors.
The most effective way to decrease the incidence of congenital anomalies is by putting in place preventive public health measures and proper prenatal health care services. While the WHO and other international organisations are doing what they can, the need of the hour is trained and skilled professionals who are willing to commit their time and expertise to help give newborn babies the promise of a better future.