PAHO/WHO calls on countries to strengthen surveillance of birth defects, including microcephaly

Washington, D.C., March 3, 2016 (PAHO/WHO) —Strengthening surveillance for birth defects will help countries obtain more accurate estimates of the prevalence of microcephaly and other congenital anomalies in newborns, say experts from the Pan American Health Organization/World Health Organization (PAHO/WHO). PAHO/WHO is urging countries to invest resources in strengthening such surveillance systems in light of the recent surge of cases of microcephaly reported by Brazil and on the observance of World Birth Defects Day on March 3.

"Birth defects have an enormous human, social and economic impact," said Dr. Carissa Etienne, PAHO Director. "Being able to accurately detect them will facilitate the conduct of epidemiological studies to better identify causes and population patterns. Such studies would provide the evidence base for informed public health decision-making, appropriate policy formulation, design of preventive strategies, and planning of health services."

Congenital anomalies are the second-leading cause of death—after prematurity—among newborns and children under 5 in the Americas. Worldwide, an estimated 1 in 33 babies is born with a birth defect. While not all of these are fatal, many children who survive have increased risk of long-term disabilities and require healthcare services, and other ancillary services, to improve their quality of life.

PAHO/WHO has been working with ministries of health to establish surveillance systems for birth defects since 2014, but these efforts have taken on new urgency with the Zika epidemic and the suspected links between the virus and microcephaly. Recently, PAHO/WHO released Preliminary guidelines on surveillance of microcephaly in newborns in areas with risk of Zika virus circulation to help countries detect and track any unusual increase in cases of microcephaly and other associated conditions in newborns. While the guidelines focus on microcephaly, they will also help countries strengthen their broader responses in relation to congenital defects. PAHO/WHO is providing technical cooperation to help countries implement the guidelines.

Preventing birth defects

"Birth defects can be related to environmental, infectious, genetic, or behavioral causes. Therefore, many birth defects can be prevented by taking appropriate measures before and during pregnancy, such as getting vaccinated against rubella, taking folic acid, and abstaining from alcohol and tobacco consumption," said Dr. Andrés de Francisco, Director of the Family, Gender and Life Course Department at PAHO/WHO.

Given current concerns about the Zika virus, its potential link to microcephaly, and the possibility of sexual transmission of the virus, PAHO/WHO is urging women living in or traveling to areas with Zika circulation to take special care to avoid mosquito bites and is urging both men and women in these areas to adopt safer sexual practices, including correct and consistent use of condoms, or to practice abstinence.

Any decision to delay pregnancy is a woman's human right. PAHO/WHO is urging countries to ensure that women have full information about risks, access to reproductive health services, including contraception, and information about support services they can expect to receive after giving birth.

World Birth Defects Day was established on March 3, 2015, to advocate for increased economic and political support related to congenital anomalies. In addition to PAHO/WHO, sponsors include the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC); the Latin American Collaborative Study of Congenital Malformations (ECLAMC); the European Dysmelia Reference Information Centre (EDRIC); the International Federation for Spina Bifida and Hydrocephalus (IFSBH); the International Clearinghouse for Birth Defects; the March of Dimes; the Neonatal Alliance; the National Birth Defects Prevention Network (NBDPN); the Partnership for Maternal, Newborn and Child Health; and the WHO Regional Office for South-East Asia.

The Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), founded in 1902, is the oldest international public health organization in the world. It works with its member countries to improve the health and the quality of life of the people of the Americas. It also serves as the Regional Office for the Americas of WHO.