WHO calls for healthier future for newborns and mothers

Kathmandu, March 3

The World Health Organisation Regional Office for South-East Asia has called for a healthier future for newborns and mothers across South-East Asia, including Nepal.

Birth defects affect approximately one in 33 infants and result in around 3.2 million birth defect-related disabilities across the world annually. In the South-East Asia Region, each year birth defects are responsible for an estimated 90,000 newborn deaths, said the UN health agency.

“When not fatal, birth defects can result in long-term disability, impacting individuals, families, health systems and societies. The most common birth defects are heart defects, neural tube defects, and Down’s syndrome, with 94 per cent of severe cases occurring in middle- and low-resource settings,” Dr Poonam Khetrapal Singh, WHO Regional Director for South-East Asia, said in a press release issued on World Birth Defects Day today.

According to WHO, birth defects may be caused by a genetic, nutritional, infectious or environmental factor. Though it is often difficult to identify the exact cause of a birth defect, many of them can be prevented. Doing so means undertaking concerted and multisectoral action aimed at alleviating the nutritional, environmental and disease hazards pregnant women face. Women’s access to adequate nutrition, including folic acid and iodine, for example, must be guaranteed both pre and post conception through supplementation or food fortification. The enjoyment of an environment free of harmful chemicals, too, should be assured. And vaccination coverage that can protect pregnant women and their unborn babies from defect-causing diseases such as rubella must be universal.

“Of vital importance for birth defect prevention and control is ensuring access for all expectant mothers to high-quality, cost-effective pre-conception and antenatal services. These services will ensure women are counselled to meet their nutritional needs before and during their pregnancy, at the same time avoiding tobacco and alcohol use. And they will also help detect birth defects early and manage defect-related complications,” said Dr Khetrapal Singh.

'Number of infants with birth defects very high'

Kathmandu, March 3

Chief of Nepal Health Research Council Dr Khem Karki today said that the number of infants born with defects was worryingly high in Nepal, as many pregnant women don’t consume folic acid and iodine during pregnancy.

He added that the use of chemical pesticides in food crops not only affected healthy foetal growth, but also hampered the health of children.

Speaking during a panel discussion organised to mark the third World Birth Defects Day today by Karuna Foundation Nepal, Nepal Health Research Council, and Down Syndrome Association Nepal, Dr Karki said half of birth defects can be prevented by practicing healthy life style.

Similarly, child specialist and paediatrician Dr Dhan Raj Aryal quoted data from a research conducted by the Family Health Division from 2014 to 2015 in 10 hospitals of Nepal. He said six to 10 per cent of prenatal infants died due to birth defects, and added that the data was not comprehensive as many cases went undocumented.

He said that around three to 10 per cent of cases were deliberately hidden by family members to avoid stigma and shame. Dr Aryal informed that the FHD has been researching on birth defects in 16 hospitals in 2016 to 2017.

“Early treatment and timely check-ups can vastly improve quality of life for children born with defects, but most families don’t know this,” said Sudarshan Subedi, president of National Federation of the Physically Disabled, Nepal.