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Top 5 Genetic Birth Defects Named

Almost 8 Million Babies per Year Born With Genetic Birth Defects
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Jan. 30, 2006 -- Every year, about 8 million babies worldwide are born with gene-related birth defects, says a new report from the March of Dimes.

That figure amounts to 6% of all global births in a given year, the report shows.

There are more than 7,000 genetic or partially genetic birth defects. Five common types account for a quarter of the world's cases, says the March of Dimes:

  • Heart defects: More than a million births worldwide yearly.
  • Neural tube defects (including spina bifida): Nearly 324,000 births worldwide yearly.
  • Blood disorders (such as sickle cell disease and thalassemia): More than 307,000 births worldwide yearly.
  • Down syndrome: More than 217,000 births worldwide yearly.
  • G6PD deficiency (enzyme deficiency that causes anemia): More than 177,000 births worldwide yearly.

More than 3 million children die of genetic birth defects by age 5, and almost as many may be permanently affected by their birth defect, the report shows.

Poorest Countries Hardest Hit

The figures are harshest in low- and middle-income countries. But the solutions don't always require big money, says the March of Dimes.

More than 94% of babies born with birth defects and more than 95% of children's deaths due to birth defects occur in low- and middle-income countries, states the March of Dimes.

In the hardest-hit areas, 82 per thousand babies are born with a genetic birth defect, compared to a low of 39 per thousand births, the report shows.

Those figures only count birth defects tied to genetics. Birth defects due to alcohol, drugs, or other substances aren't included.

Poverty and maternal health care are major reasons for the heavy toll in poorer nations. Those countries also have a relatively high number of older mothers and marriages among close relatives, says the March of Dimes.

In addition, genes that help people survive malaria can backfire by raising children's risk of being born with sickle cell disease or thalassemia, two blood-related birth defects, the report notes.

Avoiding Birth Defects

Even in countries with scarce money or medical resources, a woman's chances of having a baby with genetic birth defects can be improved, says the March of Dimes.

Good nutrition, family planning, and appropriate medical care are simple steps recommended in the report.

For instance, fortifying salt with iodine cuts down on illnesses due to insufficient iodine. Fortifying flour and other grain products with folic acid (folate) helps avoid neural tube birth defects. Those practices have made a difference in the U.S. but aren't followed in all countries, says the March of Dimes.

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