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World Birth Defects Day: WHO calls for awareness on congenital anomalies, releases toolkit

'We are reminded that every journey matters and the journey of health indeed begins before birth,' Saima Wazed, WHO Regional Director for South-East Asia said in a statement.
Last Updated 02 March 2024, 10:30 IST

New Delhi: On the eve of the World Birth Defects Day 2024, the World Health Organization on Saturday highlighted the need to raise awareness about birth defects and accelerate actions to prevent, detect and manage congenital anomalies which occur during intra-uterine life of infants.

"We are reminded that every journey matters and the journey of health indeed begins before birth," Saima Wazed, WHO Regional Director for South-East Asia said in a statement.

A regional guidance document on screening newborns for three conditions -- hearing impairment, eye abnormalities, and neonatal hyperbilirubinaemia -- is being released on this occasion to facilitate capacity-building of member states, Wazed said.

She pointed out that the contribution of congenital disorders to death is increasing globally among children aged below 5 years.

Between 2000 and 2021, the contribution of birth defects to child mortality increased in our WHO South-East Asia Region from 4 per cent to 11 per cent, and globally from 4.6 percent to 8 per cent, she said.

"Birth defects are sadly now the third most common cause of death among under-5 children in our Region, accounting for 11 per cent of the total. This is equivalent to the deaths of 300 under-5 children every single day," Wazed said.

Birth defects not only have a profound impact on individuals but also place a considerable burden on families, friends, the community and health-care systems.

The WHO regional director said while genetics plays a major role in their aetiology (study of the causes of a disease), many birth defects are preventable through addressing environmental factors. These include exposure to pollutants, lifestyle choices and socioeconomic conditions that affect pregnant women and fetuses.

Since 2014, WHO has supported all our member states to drive rapid and sustained reductions in maternal, newborn and child mortality, which includes targeted action to prevent, detect, manage and care for birth defects, Wazed said.

An integrated approach has been adopted to implement interventions for the prevention and treatment of birth defects in existing national programmes, she said.

'Guided by the Regional Strategic Framework, all our member states have national plans for prevention and control of birth defects,' she added.

Accelerating prevention, management and care for birth defects is a priority, and we as a region have issued a 'call for action' in five key areas, Wazed highlighted.

First, countries need to place birth defects high on their agenda and expand commitment and leadership at both the policy and programme levels, along with commensurate financial allocations, she said.

Secondly, the new regional document and videos on universal newborn screening of three conditions -- hearing impairment, eye abnormalities and neonatal hyperbilirubinaemia -- provide guidance on how simple bedside tests can be integrated within the existing health system, she added.

Third, focus should be laid on improving the coverage and quality of preventive interventions such as rubella immunisation, food fortification and quality pre-conception and antenatal care.

"Fourth, our Member states must work together with community-based networks, platforms and organisations, to recognize the challenges, hard work and perseverance of parents, caregivers and families of children with birth defects, and to empower them to access services and support, including social protection," Wazed stated.

Finally, member states must sustain and expand surveillance of birth defects, with a focus on improving coverage and quality of surveillance with regular data analysis and application.

The results of data analysis must be used for mobilising commitment and resources, along with improving programme implementation, the regional director said.

Aligned with the 76th World Health Assembly resolution WHA76.9 in 2023 on food fortification, our member states need to plan, implement and monitor large-scale food fortification programmes, Wazed said.

"On World Birth Defects Day 2024, WHO reaffirms its commitment to accelerate actions to prevent, detect and manage these conditions -- aligned with the 'survive, thrive and transform' agenda of the Global Strategy for Women's, Children's and Adolescents' Health (2016'“2030)," she added.

The World Birth Defects Day, observed on March 3 every year, was launched in 2015.

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(Published 02 March 2024, 10:30 IST)

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