Eleven countries, including Nepal, in World Health Organisation South-East Asia Region continue to spearhead global efforts to prevent, detect, and treat birth defects.

Globally, an estimated eight million newborns are born with a birth defect every year, of which around 300,000 die due to associated complications. The region accounts for an estimated 90,000 deaths associated with birth defects annually, or around 30 per cent of the global total.

Birth defects are structural or functional anomalies that occur during intrauterine life, the most serious of which include heart defects, neural tube defects and Down syndrome.

WHO and its 11-member states in the region continue to actively support the World Birth Defects Day movement, which aims to mobilise resources and commitment to improve birth defects surveillance, research, prevention and care, said Dr Poonam Khetrapal Singh, WHO Regional Director for South-East Asia, in a press release issued today on the occasion of the World Birth Defects Day.

According to the release, the region's progress has, in recent years, been strong in line with its flagship priority on accelerating reductions in maternal, newborn and child mortality and significant advances made across all areas of reproductive, maternal, newborn, child and adolescent health.

Almost all the countries are implementing national action plans to address birth defects. Hospital-based surveillance continues to expand.

By December 2020, over 3.5 million births from across the region had been reported, including 38,000 birth defects. All countries have introduced rubella vaccination for girls, with an average 83 per cent coverage.

"Maldives and Sri Lanka have eliminated rubella, and Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal and Timor-Leste have controlled the occurrence of congenital rubella syndrome.

Several member states have fortified foods such as wheat flour with folic acid, vitamin B-12 and iron to prevent neural tube defects and anaemia. The region's momentum must continue to build," said Dr Kshetrapal Singh.

"Our targets are many. Efforts to prevent, detect and treat birth defects will help all countries in the region fulfil flagship priorities in accelerating reductions in maternal, newborn and child mortality and on achieving universal health coverage.

They will help all countries reduce neonatal mortality to at least as low as 12 per 1,000 live births by 2030 – the Sustainable Development Goal threshold," she added.

As per the release, reduced birth defect incidence and mortality and increased early-intervention and disability care will help all countries achieve the 'Survive, Thrive, Transform' agenda, which is at the heart of the Global Strategy for Women's, Children's and Adolescents' Health (2016-2030).

"Several priorities must chart the path ahead. First, to prevent birth defects, countries can close the remaining immunisation gaps for women and girls and increase access to quality antenatal care. Healthy lifestyle counselling will help encourage all pregnant women to avoid harmful products such as tobacco and alcohol.

Second, to detect birth defects, countries can increase access to screening technologies and services, including ultrasound and neonatal screening. Both are crucial for detecting major abnormalities, common metabolic disorders, heart defects and other congenital disorders.

Third, to treat birth defects, countries can enhance the provision of early intervention services that help prevent physical, intellectual, visual or auditory disabilities," read the release.

By providing all families access to these and other key services, countries can reduce the health and socio-economic impact birth defects have on individuals, families, health systems and societies. Not all birth defects can be prevented or treated, but most of them can. We must do everything possible to reduce birth defect incidence and impact, and to achieve the targets and goals, Dr Kshetrapal Singh said.

A version of this article appears in the print on March 3, 2021, of The Himalayan Times.