The first international survey of birth defects shows that they are common around the world. The March of Dimes charitable foundation finds that about 6 percent of babies born each year have a birth defect of genetic or partly genetic origin.
The March of Dimes calls the number of birth defects a hidden toll. Its study of 193 countries reveals that an estimated eight million children are born each year with an impairment caused by a genetic abnormality. The most common are congenital heart defects, Down syndrome, improperly formed spines and brains called neural tube defects, and red blood cell disorders such as sickle cell disease and thalassemia.
Perhaps hundreds of thousands more children are born with damage caused after conception by their mothers' exposure to alcohol, deficiencies of nutrients like iodine and folic acid, or diseases like rubella and syphilis. But the new survey focuses on genetic birth defects since their causes are easier to determine.
The annual death toll is high.
"About 3.5 million of these children die under the age of five from their birth defects," said March of Dimes Vice President for Global Programs, Christopher Howson. "The ones who survive risk being disabled physically, intellectually, and have auditory and visual impairment for life. The toll is severe and it was surprising to us."
As with most health issues, developing countries bear the brunt of the problem. They experience about 95 percent of all births with serious defects and deaths from them.
March of Dimes officials say they lack resources for programs to alleviate the burden. The group calls for strengthening medical genetics services worldwide to identify couples at high risk of having children with genetic disorders and to detect infants born with them. It also recommends bolstering maternal and child health programs, including ensuring a balanced diet during a woman's reproductive years and controlling infections in pregnant women.
"We estimate in the report that if the recommendations that we give were implemented, up to 70 percent of mortality and disability from birth defects could be prevented, treated, or ameliorated," Howson said.
The March of Dimes says the toll from birth defects has been underestimated because of poor health statistics and limited diagnostic ability in developing nations. The report notes that even in wealthy countries, only half of birth defects are diagnosed accurately.
Howson says the new data can raise awareness of the issue everywhere.
"The efforts that are being done in different countries are piecemeal," he said. "We hope that this report will provide an avenue forward for organizations like the World Health Organization to help bring order and coordination to all these different efforts."
Howson says the March of Dimes report makes a strong argument for addressing birth defects, because they contribute significantly to the childhood mortality that the United Nations Millennium Development Goals seek to reduce by 2015.