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China Conference Highlights High Birth Defects in Developing Countries

  • Daniel Schearf

While the incidence of birth defects has steadily dropped in industrialized nations, the number of children suffering from birth defects in developing countries remains high. Experts at a recent conference in Beijing say one way to cut the rate is to improve nutrition for pregnant women.

As many as five million children each year arrive in the world with birth defects, and researchers say the vast majority of them are born in developing countries.

Experts gathered this week in Beijing for the Second International Conference on Birth Defects and Disabilities in the Developing World to discuss ways to reduce this number and to cut the disparity with developed nations.

Dr. Li Zhu is director of the Institute of Reproductive and Child Health at Peking University. He says the number of children born with birth defects and disabilities is becoming a bigger issue for developing nations.

"In the developed country they have done a lot of work to reduce birth defect disability domestically," Dr. Li explained. "But, in the developing country we just start the birth defect disabilities prevention and care so now the birth defect disabilities in developing countries still high. So, compared with developed countries it's a very big difference."

The government reports up to 1.2 million infants are born with birth defects each year in China.

Poor countries also struggle to provide health care and education for those with disabilities, who often have trouble finding employment.

Koenraad Vanormelingen is chief of health and nutrition for the U.N. Children's Fund in China. He says good maternal and child health care and nutrition - two common deficiencies in developing nations - are key to preventing birth defects.

"By improving those two areas the most immediate effect will be by reducing mortality but definitely will also improve the development and capacity of children all over," he said.

For instance, he says, one simple, cost effective way to prevent many defects is to add the nutrient folic acid to flour. Women who consume enough folic acid while pregnant are less likely to have babies with defects.

In China, UNICEF leaders have said, the government managed to prevent thousands of cases of brain damage in infants during the past decade - simply by adding iodine to salt.

With infant mortality rates dropping steadily worldwide, the conference participants say the time has come for nations to focus attention on birth defects and disabilities.