Babies with birth defects

Birth defects monitored by national surveillance are being underreported by 98% in South Africa.

The problem with inaccurate reporting is that it has led to inadequate and under-resourced genetic services for the care of those affected.

Sadly, this means that the most vulnerable of our society – children and the disabled – do not receive the care they desperately need.

What causes birth defects?

Birth defects are abnormalities in structure or function, including metabolic disorders, and are present from birth.

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They occur in every population worldwide but over 90% occur in developing countries where 95% of the birth defects related deaths occur. Serious birth defects may cause death or life-long disability.

The majority of birth defects (80%) are genetic or partially genetic in cause and occur before conception. The rest are caused by abnormalities of the foetal environment linked to the use of alcohol and recreational drugs or due to maternal illness. These birth defects are caused after conception.

Birth defects in South Africa

In South Africa, one in 15 babies is affected by a birth defect, which is seven percent of births annually.

Only some are obvious at birth, such as club foot and cleft lip and/or palate, while others, such as congenital heart disorders, are hidden. Some birth defects only manifest later in life, such as Alzheimer’s disease.

South Africa is following in the footsteps of industrialised countries where birth defects are the leading cause of child death, accounting for up to 28% of deaths under five years.

Can anything be done?

“It’s a myth that nothing can be done to treat birth defects,” says Helen Malherbe, Chair of Genetic Alliance South Africa. “Scientific evidence has proved that 70% of birth defects can be prevented, cured or the disability reduced by providing early intervention – and yet these services are not available to all South Africans.”

Improving surveillance is a key step in responding to World Health Assembly Resolution 63.17 of 2010, which calls member countries to prioritise birth defects as a health care priority through a series of key activities.

With only 12 practising medical geneticists countrywide (one per 4,6 million people), services have to be improved to meet the growing health need.

For more information about Genetic Alliance South Africa, visit


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While All4Women endeavours to ensure health articles are based on scientific research, health articles should not be considered as a replacement for professional medical advice. Should you have concerns related to this content, it is advised that you discuss them with your personal healthcare provider.