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Program to help lower birth defects
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About 12 million rural Chinese women of child-bearing age will receive free folic acid supplements from the government this year to help prevent birth defects in their future babies, according to a public health project announced by the Ministry of Health Thursday.

A child is injected with the Hepatitis B vaccine at Shaodong county centre for disease control, Hunan province in this file photo. [Huang Wu/China Daily]

A child is injected with the Hepatitis B vaccine at Shaodong county centre for disease control, Hunan province in this file photo. [Huang Wu/China Daily]

The program seeks to provide folic acid supplements by the end of 2009 to all rural Chinese women wanting a child, officials said.

China, particularly the rural areas, has always been hit hard by varied birth deformities, which afflict about 1.2 million newborns in China each year, Zhu Jun, deputy director of the National Maternal and Child Health Surveillance Office, told China Daily Thursday.

Of the babies born with defects, only 30 percent can be cured or treated. Another 40 percent suffer lifelong deformities, while the remaining die shortly after birth, health experts have said.

Neural tube defects are common birth defects, as well as congenital heart disease, cleft lip and hydrocephalus.

Scientific research has shown that appropriate consumption of folic acid can reduce the incidence of the neural tube defect by 50 to 70 percent.

A survey by Zhu's team last year showed that less than 20 percent of would-be mothers in the countryside were taking the supplement, which costs about 20 yuan ($3) per person for a six-month supply.

"That's nothing in relatively well-off cities, where a great majority of women who want to have babies are buying and taking that, " Zhu said.

But poor rural women might give up taking the supplement for economic reasons, she said. "The new project distributing free folic acid would help change that situation a lot."

Health workers in the rural areas should work to keep raising public awareness and make sure the folic acid is taken properly, she suggested.

"This cost-effective prevention measure for birth defects would help save an estimated 8 billion yuan in medical care costs," she noted.

The more than 160 million yuan earmarked by the central government is ready for the project in 2009.

Health experts say apart from insufficient consumption of folic acid, birth defects occur for many other reasons, including exposure to health hazardous pollutants and long-term unhealthy lifestyles.

Other public health projects announced Thursday include:

a hepatitis B vaccination drive, which would protect more than 23 million Chinese younger than 15 from the infection

free cervical and breast cancer screenings for rural women

highly subsidized eye surgeries for poor cataract patients

kitchen range and toilet renovations in rural areas.

"For developing countries like China, effective prevention work is crucial for a healthy and sustainable health care system," health minister Chen Zhu has said.

(China Daily June 19, 2009)

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