Global Study Examines Toll of Genetic Defects

About 6 percent of children worldwide -- nearly 8 million babies a year -- are born with a physical or mental disability caused by a genetic defect, according to the first comprehensive estimate of the global toll.

Each year, about 3.3 million of them die before their fifth birthday, victims of what the report's authors call a "serious and vastly unappreciated public health problem."

Although parents everywhere face some risk of having a child with a defect, the risk is much greater in poor and middle-income countries. Reasons include inadequate maternal health and prenatal care, more intermarriage, and a higher frequency of some disease-causing genes.

The experience in rich countries over the past quarter-century, however, suggests that 70 percent of these defects can be prevented or lessened.

The authors of the report, which was sponsored by the March of Dimes, hope it will be the first step in convincing countries that birth defects are neither inevitable nor untreatable.

[By David Brown, Washington Post]

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