Birth defects a huge burden of Chinese families
Updated: 2006-09-25 20:38

BEIJING -- Birth defects affect one in ten Chinese households, imposing a total annual financial burden of one billion yuan (US$125 million), the Ministry of Health announced on Monday.

The figures look set to reignite a debate on whether compulsory pre-marital health checks should be resumed.

Nearly 30 million households are raising or have raised babies born with defects, which have become a major cause of perinatal, neonatal and infant mortality, said Yang Qing, director of maternal and child care and community health department under the ministry.

Cleft palette, neural tube defects, excessive numbers of fingers or toes, congenital heart disease and water on the brain are the top five birth defects among Chinese babies.

Nearly one million babies were born with defects in China each year, of whom just 30 percent could be cured or treated. Another 40 suffered lifelong deformities while 30 percent died around birth, said Yang.

"The operations, medication, treatment and welfare would cost 30 billion yuan (US$3.75 billion) for all babies born with defects and children with congenital deformities," said Yang.

It was an enormous burden both financially and mentally, for society as well as families, so prevention was crucial.

Measures to prevent abnormalities included:

-- planned and prepared pregnancy.

-- micronutrient supplements like folic acid, iodine and iron before and during pregnancy.

-- inoculations for measles, hepatitis B and flu vaccines.

-- screening for and treatment of infectious and chronic diseases.

-- and avoidance of smoking, drinking and contact with toxic substances.

The Ministry of Health on Monday launched a publicity campaign with the State Population and Family Planning Commission and China Disabled Persons' Federation, aiming to raise public awareness through TV programs, knowledge contests and public speeches.

The ministry also required local health authorities to carry out pre-pregnancy healthcare services and arrange photo exhibitions with the theme of "Healthy baby, happy family".

Incidence of birth defects have been rising in some regions China.

In Zhejiang, the incidence of babies with birth defects was 1.15 percent in 2003 -- the year compulsory pre-marital health checks were scrapped -- rising to 1.33 percent in 2004 and 1.47 percent last year.

About 480,000 babies are born in Zhejiang each year, which means about 7,200 babies were born with defects in 2005.

In the southern province of Guangdong, the incidence has risen from 0.96 percent ten years ago to 2.12 percent today.

In Shanghai, abnormalities have been reported as the top killer of babies for the past 10 years.

Some experts believed the cancellation of pre-marital tests since 2003 was a major cause of the rise in birth defects, but others argued there were no certain prove for this claim.

The number of would-be couples undergoing the checks has dropped drastically since they were made optional three years ago, figures showed, after previously being a legal prerequisite for obtaining a marriage license.

Pan Guiyu, deputy director of the State Population and Family Planning Commission, called for the resumption of compulsory pre-marital tests, saying the cancellation could affect the "quality" of the population.

But Ma Huaide, professor of the China University of Political Science and Law, said no concise figures currently could support this claim, so the resumption of compulsory pre-marital tests needs more consideration.

A research revealed by professor Wang Yifei of the Shanghai Jiaotong University show that 50 to 60 percent of birth defects in humans occurred for no obvious reason.

Chromosomal abnormality contributed to 6 to 7 percent, genetic mutation contributed 7 to 8 percent, environmental factors 7 to 10 percent and the comprehensive effect of hereditary and environmental factors 20 to 25 percent, according to a research.

In countries where infant mortality has been reduced to less than 50 per 1,000 births, birth defects are emerging as the most common cause of neonatal deaths. These deaths account for 30 to 50 percent of perinatal mortality and 20 to 30 percent of infant mortality, according to figures released at the second International Conference on Birth Defects and Disabilities in the Developing World held in September 2005.

Reducing mortality by two-thirds among children under five has been set by the United Nations as one of the eight Millennium Development Goals, all 191 UN member nations have agreed to meet this goal by 2015.