Worldwide, congenital anomalies cause approximately 295,000 deaths of children within their first 28 days of life. Every year, about 7.9 million children are born with life-threatening defects and 3.3 million children under the age of five5 die from congenital disabilities. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), congenital anomalies are structural or functional aberrations that occur during intrauterine life. The most common congenital disabilities include heart defects, cleft lip (palate), down syndrome and split spine (also known as spina bifida). Although 50% of all congenital disabilities do not have a single definite cause, common causes include genetic mutation, environmental factors and various other risk factors.
Although congenital disabilities are widespread globally, they are particularly prevalent in developing countries. Developing countries account for 94% of worldwide congenital disabilities.
The level of income -both individual and national- in developing countries is a crucial factor that indirectly influences the high incidence of congenital disabilities. Low income affects the incidence of congenital disabilities in developing countries in the following ways:
- Poor Access to Adequate Maternal Healthcare for Women During Pregnancy: About 99% of the global maternal mortality cases occur in low-income countries due to inadequate maternal care.
- Poor Maternal Nutritional Condition: Deficiency of vitamin B can, for instance, escalate chances of birthing a baby with neural tube defects.
- Excessive Prenatal Alcohol Consumption: Pregnant mothers’ consumption of alcohol increases their risks of giving birth to a child with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS). FAS is a total of the damage – both physical and mental – to an unborn child as a result of their mother’s alcohol consumption.
- Presence of Other Infections: Some sexually transmitted diseases can transfer from a pregnant mother to her child. For example, syphilis during pregnancy accounts for an estimated 305 000 fetal and neonatal deaths annually. It also jeopardizes 215,000 infant lives due to congenital infections, prematurity or low-birth-weight.
How WHO is Taking Action
The World Health Organization has taken and implemented various measures to fight congenital anomalies. In the 2010 World Health Assembly, WHO took on a resolution encouraging its member states to fight against congenital anomalies by:
- Raising awareness throughout governments and the public about congenital disabilities and the risk they impose on children’s lives
- Developing congenital disabilities surveillance systems
- Providing consistent support to children affected by congenital anomalies
- Ensuring that children with disabilities have the same rights and equal treatment as children without disabilities
- Assisting families whose children have congenital disabilities
In addition to the resolution, WHO designed a manual that showed illustrations and photographs of selected birth defects. The manual’s primary purpose was to foster further development of the surveillance system, especially in low-income countries.
The Global Strategy for Women’s and Children’s Health
In 2016, WHO went an extra mile and published the Global Strategy for Women’s, Children’s and Adolescents Health 2016-2030, an updated version of the Global Strategy for Women’s and Children’s Health devised five years prior. The Global Strategy’s grand theme was “Survive, Thrive, Transform.”
- Survive: “Survive” encompassed various goals that the Global Strategy hoped to accomplish. These include ending preventable deaths, lowering maternal mortality rates and newborn deaths among others.
- Thrive: The main target was promoting health and wellbeing by responding to the dietary needs of children, adolescents and pregnant & lactating women.
- Transform: This objective’s primary goal was to create a safe and nurturing environment by terminating extreme poverty. Poverty one of the leading causes of congenital disabilities.
Over the years, the World Health Organization’s relentless efforts in battling against congenital disabilities have made remarkable progress in alleviating the issue. For instance, the number of newborn deaths has plummeted from 5 million to 2.4 million between 1990 and 2019, thanks to the various innovations and programs put in place. Although the current state of affairs is far from ideal, past accomplishments lay the groundwork and identify clear steps for future progress.