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Programme Launched to Combat Birth Defects
China has kicked off an eight-year programme to lower the prevalence of birth defects and disabilities through health education campaigns and preventive measures targeting at-risk groups.

The Ministry of Health and the China Disabled Persons Federation jointly announced on Friday that the nation's 2002-10 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 couples of childbearing age, as well as their families.

Education on various preventative measures, such as pre-natal check-ups and improved nutrition, will be undertaken to prevent birth defects and disabilities.

In China, 800,000 to 1.2 million infants suffer from dozens of kinds of inborn defects and deformities annually, which accounts for 4 to 6 per cent of its 20 million newborns.

And birth defects have become a main cause of infant mortality.

The most prevalent infant birth defects in China include 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 Li Zhu, an expert with the Institute of Reproductive and Child Health at Peking University.

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

About 100,000 newborns suffer from neural tube defect each year in China.

The defect is caused by a lack of folic acid and can cause brain paralysis. Most of these newborns die.

The level of folic acid present in the body of many Chinese women is generally much lower than that needed to ensure an embryo's health.

Thanks to the Sino-American Research Project to Prevent Neural Tube Defect, which started in 1990 and finished in 1999 in China, a very effective medicine to supplement folic acid now can be obtained by Chinese women quite cheaply, Li said.

Meanwhile, another five-year plan from 2002 to 2006 was started in June to research effective medical measures to prevent inborn heart disease, Li added.

(China Daily July 22, 2002)

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