Birth defects are a leading cause of neonatal and infant death in Latin America and the Caribbean, second only to prematurity.
Montevideo, March 3, 2022 (CLAP/PAHO) - Every year around the world, 8 million children are born with a serious birth defect. In Latin America and the Caribbean, these anomalies represent the second leading cause of neonatal and infant death after prematurity. Surviving babies will often live with a disability throughout their lives.
Although many birth defects are the result of one or more genetic, infectious, nutritional, or environmental factors, the causes of others cannot be easily identified. The most common birth defects include heart malformations, neural tube defects and Down syndrome.
In the context of World Birth Defects Day, which takes place every March 3 since 2015, PAHO calls for countries to develop surveillance and monitoring programs for anomalies, as well as to ensure access to timely treatment, including surgery, medications and nutrition needed to improve health outcomes for newborns with these conditions.
Congenital heart disease
In Latin America and the Caribbean, one in three birth-defect-related deaths is due to heart malformations. Countries are making progress in this area, by increased screening for congenital heart disease, as well as through the implementation of comprehensive policies and programs to provide immediate care for babies with these conditions.
“Advances in medical care and treatment have improved survival rates and quality of life for these children,” Pablo Durán, PAHO’s regional advisor on perinatal health said. However, he also warned that a lack of adequate surveillance, diagnosis and timely referral will set countries back.
Prevention before and during pregnancy
While not all birth defects can be prevented, there are some steps families can take before and during pregnancy to reduce the risk to their babies. These include adequate prenatal care, sufficient intake of folic acid and iodine, restricting the intake of alcohol, avoiding exposure to hazardous substances, such as heavy metals and pesticides, and completing their immunization schedule. Adequate training of health personnel in the prevention of these anomalies is also necessary.
PAHO works with countries to strengthen public policies that improve the health and well-being of newborns with birth defects and promote the engagement of their families.