Maternal Health Task Force

MHTF Blog

Birth Defect Prevention: A Case for Integrating Maternal and Newborn Care

By: Katie Millar, Technical Writer, Women and Health Initiative, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health

This month the WHO came out with “Birth defects surveillance: Atlas of selected congenital anomalies.” This guide, with illustrations and photographs of common birth defects, is a supplement to the WHO publication, “Birth defects surveillance: A manual for programme managers,” released earlier this year. These manuals are useful as they emphasize the importance of maternal and newborn health integration.

Birth defects account for 3% of global child deaths and 7.3% of neonatal deaths. In the Americas, congenital birth defects make up 10% of child deaths and 20.8% of neonatal deaths. But are congenital defects preventable? Sometimes they are. With key interventions integrated into maternal health and antenatal care, both mom and baby may experience improved health outcomes.

Environmental and maternal causes account for 4-10% of all birth defects. With antenatal care that focuses on (1) mother’s nutritional status, (2) preventing maternal exposure to chemicals and illicit drugs, (3) preventing maternal infections like rubella, (4) managing chronic maternal diseases like diabetes, (5) and preventing exposure to known teratogens, both maternal and neonatal health can see improvements. One notable public health success in this realm is the 25-50% reduction in neural tube defects (or spina bifida) experienced in countries after folic acid fortification was implemented in cereal and grain products.

If you’re interested in improving surveillance, legislation, and prevention of birth defects in your country, reference the two WHO manuals below:

–          Birth defects surveillance: A manual for programme managers

–          Birth defects surveillance: Atlas of selected congenital anomalies

Categories: Maternal Health

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