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Cities consider free premarital health checks
By Cao Desheng in Beijing and Zheng Caixiong in Guangzhou (China Daily)
Updated: 2005-02-07 06:56

Beijing health departments are planning to introduce free premarital health checks to reduce the growing number of birth defects in the nation's capital.

The scheme's first stage will be implemented in Xicheng District next month, according to Chen Xin, vice-director of the district's Health Bureau.

Couples can undergo free medical checks in the district's Health Centre for Women and Children if they produce valid identity cards, Chen was quoted by the People's Daily as saying.

Since the government made pre-marriage health checks optional on October 1 last year - instead of a prerequisite before obtaining a marriage licence - the rate of premarital check-ups declined sharply while the number of birth defects increased.

According to an estimate from the Beijing Maternity and Child Care Hospital, only 5 per cent of couples had premarital health checks last year since the new regulation came into being. And more than 13 per cent of those that were checked were found to have reproductive health problems.

Experts warned that the declining rate of premarital medical checks will lead to an omission in the report on hereditary and infectious diseases as well as venereal diseases in particular.

A total of 1,113 cases of birth defects were found from October to the end of last year during prenatal screening, around 13.5 per cent of the total number, according to the Beijing Municipal Health Bureau.

Currently, Chinese health departments take three steps to prevent birth defects and ensure sound care, involving premarriage medical checks, pre-pregnancy education and prenatal and neonatal screening.

Meanwhile, in Guangzhou, South China's Guangdong Province, officials are also considering offering free premarital health examinations to the city's soon-to-be-married couples.

The municipal government has sent investigation and research groups to eight major hospitals for feasibility studies for the future introduction of free premarital medical checks, according to Zhang Li, deputy director of the Guangzhou Municipal Health Bureau.

But Zhang refused to reveal when the city would provide the free check-ups.

Zhang urged all couples in Guangzhou planning on marriage to have health checks before their nuptials.

And Zhang promised the privacy of couples examined would be protected.

The city, like Beijing, saw a dramatic drop in the number of premarital examinations after they were made optional last year.

As many as 97.7 per cent of Guangzhou's nearly-weds had health checks in 2002, with a similar figure of 97.1 per cent in 2003.

But the rate plummeted to 4.88 per cent last year after October 1, Zhang said.

As a result, more than 1,000 babies were born with physical defects that may have been avoided, the highest figure in three decades.

The blame for this spike in birth defects can be laid at the door of the diminishing number of premarital health examinations.

Many of these complications could have been avoided if the fathers and mothers had premarital health checks, Zhang said.

Medical charges are one of the reasons for the plunging rate of check-ups in Guangzhou.

A soon-to-be-married couple used to pay a total of 216 yuan (US$26) for their premarital heath check, 98 yuan (US$12) for the man and 116 yuan (US$14) for the woman, before they were granted their marriage certificates.

The check-up and birth defect issues have found their way into the Guangdong Provincial Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference.

Many members put forward proposals during last month's annual meeting, urging related government departments to provide free premarital health checks to the province's nearly-weds.

Around 800,000 babies are born annually in Guangdong Province. And more than 17,000 of them are diagnosed with physical defects.

Liu Xiaofeng, a local unemployed worker, welcomed the plan for free check-ups, and said she would definitely take advantage of the examinations if they were free.

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