According to a new report, every year an estimated 8 million children are born with a serious birth defect of genetic or partially genetic origin.
The report from the March of Dimes says in addition hundreds of thousands more are born with serious birth defects of post-conception origin due to maternal exposure to environmental agents, such as alcohol, rubella, and syphilis.
The report on birth defects, 'The Hidden Toll of Dying and Disabled Children', reveals that at least 3.3 million children less than 5 years of age die annually because of serious birth defects.
Another 3.2 million of those who survive may be mentally and physically disabled for life.
It appears that birth defects are a global problem, but their impact is particularly severe in poorer countries where more than 94 percent of births with serious defects and 95 percent of the deaths of these children occur.
In such countries birth rates are also considerably higher.
Dr. Jennifer L. Howse, president of the March of Dimes, says the report identifies for the first time the severe, and previously hidden global toll of birth defects, which is a serious, vastly unappreciated and under-funded public health problem.
Michael Katz, M.D., senior vice president for research and global programs at the March of Dimes, adds that the human toll of birth defects is even greater when the impact of lifelong disability on children, their families, and society is taken into account.
The report says in addition to poverty and the many health problems that can accompany it, the higher rates of birth defects in poorer countries, can be attributed to more older women having children and marriages between blood relatives.
In countries along the world's "malaria belt," far more people carry one copy of a gene for an inherited disease that confers some protection against malaria, sickle cell anaemia.
The authors of the report say that it is a common misconception that attention to birth defects will draw funding from other priority public health efforts, when in fact, increased efforts to reduce birth defects in children contributes to the health of the entire population.
Their recommendations in this report are aimed both at addressing health disparities between richer and poorer nations and at reducing the toll of infant deaths, especially in low- and middle-income countries.
Among the interventions that would have immediate impact are folic acid supplementation to prevent neural tube defects; iodination of salt to prevent severe congenital hypothyroidism; and rubella immunization to prevent congenital rubella syndrome.
The report recommends low-income countries with high rates of infant mortality, can among other things educate the community, and train health workers, on effective prevention, treatment and care; encourage a healthy, balanced diet for pregnant women; control infections and monitor for birth defects.
Elsewhere infant birth defects can be reduced if health care professionals are trained to - recognise those couples at risk of having children with genetic disorders and are able to identify babies born with devastating but treatable metabolic disorders.
The report says major improvements can be made within existing health care systems in poorer countries, by training health care providers to use simple diagnostic and preventive tools that are already available.
Apparently fetal alcohol syndrome (mental and physical defects caused by drinking alcohol during pregnancy), is one of the more common fetal environmental problems. However though the problem is huge, there are still countries that do not recognize or monitor it.
The March of Dimes, founded in 1938 is a national voluntary health agency whose mission is to improve the health of babies by preventing birth defects, premature birth and infant mortality.