March 3 marked the 2nd annual World Birth Defects Day (WBDD) spearheaded by Disease for Control and Prevention (CDC) in collaboration with World Health Organization (WHO) through International Clearinghouse for Birth Defects (ICBD). More than 50 other international organizations joined this cause with a mission to build a healthier future for children. People can participate by sharing stories and health education materials about the global crisis of birth defects in various social media platforms using the hashtag #WorldBDday.
WBDD advocates for raised awareness about the importance of birth defects and its implications for society. This is in accordance with the resolution passed by 2010 World Health Assembly which urged all stakeholders to recognize the importance of birth defects. Specifically, it highlights the need for “increased economic, political, and intellectual support for researches and programs to improve birth defects surveillance, prevention, and care.”
Birth Defects are a Global Crisis
March of Dimes Global Report on Birth Defects (2006) states that 7.9 million children worldwide are born with birth defects of genetic origin. Environmental factors like exposure to teratogens (e.g. rubella, alcohol, nicotine, etc.) and dietary deficiencies (e.g. iodine deficiency) also caused a large number of developing fetuses to acquire birth defects. In the United States alone, 1 in 33 babies have birth defects, and this is the leading cause of the country’s infant deaths accounting for 20% of the statistics.
However, 95% of deaths worldwide caused by birth defects are from middle- and low-income countries. This highlights the significant difference between the quality of maternal and child health programs among low-income and high-income countries. Poverty, consanguineous marriages, and high-risk pregnancies (e.g. advanced maternal age) are just some of the top risk factors mentioned in the report.
Top five birth defects accounting for a total of 25% of deaths include congenital heart defects, neural tube defects (NTDs), hemoglobin disorders, Down syndrome (trisomy 21), and glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase deficiency (G6PD). One of the biggest challenges faced by the health sector in recent months is microcephaly associated with Zika virus. On-going studies on Zika virus are being conducted today. Therefore, various birth defects are a universal risk for all countries.
The Need for Global Awareness
Birth defects are one of the leading causes of stillbirths and neonatal mortality. Those who can survive are often with lifelong disabilities which can interfere with the quality of life of affected individuals and families. It predisposes families to financial problems as birth defects are costly and critical, demanding for supportive devices which need modifications as the child grows as well as diet alternatives which can be more expensive and less accessible. Surgeries and drug therapies are significant strains for the pockets too.
“Birth defects are one of the leading causes of stillbirths and neonatal mortality.”
The CDC, with goals to raise awareness and reduce stigma, promotes the following through WBDD:
- increase the number of birth defects monitoring programs globally;
- improve existing birth defects monitoring programs;
- Improve access to care; and
- continue research to identify causes of birth defects, particularly those causes that have the potential to be changed or avoided.
CDC also stated that there is still a need for established surveillance systems to obtain accurate data about the hidden toll of birth defects.
Preventing Birth Defects
While not all birth defects can be prevented, there are certain ways in which pregnant couples can commit to a safe and healthy pregnancy. Having a healthy baby involves strict adherence to healthy lifestyle choices and regular check up with health care providers.
One of the most advocated prevention for NTDs (e.g. anencephaly, spina bifida, etc.) is folic acid supplementation. In fact, this is recommended even before women get pregnant. A 400 mcg of this water-soluble vitamin is essential for the body’s processes in making new cells. Dietary sources of folic acid include green leafy vegetables and fortified cereals. Meanwhile, CDC’s global birth defects initiative is Birth Defects COUNT (Countries and Organizations United for Neural Tube Defects Prevention). This is to reduce deaths and disabilities caused by NTDs. Its one major provision is folic acid fortification, and CDC works seriously to expand this initiative worldwide.
Alcohol consumption during pregnancy is linked to cases of stillbirths, miscarriages, and intellectual disabilities in children. WHO emphasizes that there is no safe time to drink alcohol (beer and wine included) during pregnancy. Even the safe amount of alcohol consumption is still not known. On the other hand, smoking can lead to preterm birth, low birth weight, and cleft palate. Authorities encourage quitting smoking before getting pregnant as the best choice. Other substances like street drugs are linked to the same outcomes too.
For pregnant women with diabetes and hypertension, it is important to maintain a healthy weight, normal vitals, and normal blood glucose levels. These two conditions make pregnancies high-risk for unfavorable outcomes and should be regularly checked with health care providers to ensure a safe pregnancy.
Aside from this, vaccinations should be discussed with medical providers. It is also important that pregnant women and their families are educated about the warning signs of pregnancies that need prompt medical intervention to avoid increasing maternal and infant mortality.
Be an advocate
There are a lot of things people can do to advocate for raising birth defects awareness and reducing stigma. Educating one’s self about birth defects and passing on the knowledge can go a long way for this cause. WBDD logo can be showcased on website home pages, social media accounts, and email signatures. The logo is available below:
Various social media activities can also be used to promote WBDD using the hashtag when posting birth defects stories, facts, and prevention tips. Following WBDD participating organizations can be helpful too. Pictures of health programs, clinics, and services aimed for children with relevant captions provide a strong message to the online community. Lastly, visit the WBDD page for updates and press releases.
The 2016 WBDD has a social reach of over 4 million compared to last year’s 947. This proves how powerful the social media is in raising awareness through spreading the word. So same day next year, join WBDD and be one of the advocates for a healthier future for our children!