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China Launches Program to Prevent Birth Defects
China has kicked off an eight-year program to lower the prevalence of birth defects and disabilities through nationwide health education campaigns and preventive measures targeting at-risk groups.

The Ministry of Health (MOH) and the China Disabled Persons Federation jointly announced in Beijing Friday the nation's 2002-2010 plan for the improvement of infant health and the decrease of birth defects and disabilities.

The plan urges public health departments to work with mass media, schools, communities and institutions to educate the public on healthy birth practices, particularly among couples of childbearing age, as well as their families.

Various intervention measures, such as both premarital and prenatal check-ups, and improving nutrition, will be taken to prevent birth defects and disabilities.

Birth defects had become a serious public health problem and affected the economy and quality of life, said Yang Qing, deputy director of the MOH Department of Community Health and Maternal and Child Health.

Between 800,000 and 1.2 million infants, or four to six percent of babies born each year in China, suffer birth defects or disabilities at birth or months or years later.

The most prevalent infant illnesses in China included cleft lip, neural tube defect, polydactyly (having more than the normal number of fingers or toes), congenital heart anomalies, and hydrocephaly (an accumulation of fluid in the cranium), said experts with the Institute of Reproductive and Child Health under Peking University.

Insufficient iodine and folic acid in pregnant mothers' daily diets, close-relative marriages that still exist in some remote areas, exposure to poisonous and harmful environments during pregnancy are all responsible for high rates of birth defects and disabilities.

In some low-iodine areas, the intelligence quotients of children suffering from iodine deficiencies are far below normal, and the lack of folic acid in food has caused a high rate of neural tube defect in some areas.  

Pregnant women exposed to toxic substances at work run a much higher risk of giving birth to abnormally-developed infants than ordinary women, according to studies.

In China's vast rural areas, where more children were born, the prevalence of birth defects and disabilities was higher than in cities, Yang Qing said.

Birth defects lead not only to deaths and disabilities, but also increasing financial burdens on families and society, he said.

The economic burden caused by neural tube defect amounts to 200 million yuan (US$424 million) each year. The annual cost of treating sufferers of Down's syndrome, a genetic disorder characterized by mental retardation and weak muscle tone, is ten times that.

Chinese parents of children having congenital heart anomalies have to pay a total of 12 billion yuan (US$1.5 billion) every year for surgical treatment.

According to the plan, premarital health checks will become more widely available, particularly in rural areas. Newly-married couples, pregnant women, breast-feeding mothers and infants will be urged to take iodine, folic acid or other diet supplements.

Other intervention measures include protection of female workers from workplace health hazards, and educating couples preparing to have a child about abstinence from tobacco smoking, alcohol and narcotic drugs.

These measures should cover more than 40 percent of at-risk people by 2010, Yang said. Meanwhile, incidence rates of neural tube defect and major deformities should drop by 30 percent and 70 percent respectively.

(Xinhua News Agency July 20, 2002)

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