YOLISA: Professor Christianson ‘€“ a clinical geneticist at Wits University – is the co ‘€“ author of the ‘€œMarch of Dimes global report on Birth Defects’€… March of Dimes is a non- governmental organisation in the United States. Its main objective is to improve the health of babies by preventing birth defects.

PROFESSOR CHRISTIANSON: It’€™s certainly the first comprehensive approach to birth defects in which we look at how big the problem is world wide and for the first time we’€™ve estimated how big the problem is. We’€™re talking about ‘€“ with the genetic type of defects ‘€“ about 7.9 million children being born a year with a serious birth defect globally. In South Africa with the genetic type – about 58 000 children’€¦and another 14 000 being born with the environmental problems ‘€“ mainly alcohol.  

YOLISA: Until now, the scale of this problem remained unknown. But according to Professor Christianson this problem is preventable

PROFESSOR CHRISTIANSON: For children or people with birth defects, care is an absolute, prevention is the ideal. Syphilis can be got rid of. Foetal alcohol syndrome can be got rid of’€¦Downs syndrome a genetic cause. And we have the means within our policies to do this. You know what people don’€™t realise, for instance, is that Downs syndrome as women get older they have a greater risk of having a child with Down syndrome, especially over the age of 35.

YOLISA: Foetal Alcohol syndrome is usually associated with poverty. But Professor Arnold Christianson says this problem is not unique to impoverished areas

PROFESSOR CHRISTIANSON: There’€™s no doubt that we see it more in impoverished communities. That does not mean that the wealthy don’€™t have the problem. You know you’€™ll find alcohol foetal syndrome in America, Britain and places like that ‘€“ in fact there’€™s major concern in a place like Britain at the moment because young people are binge drinking at the weekend, they’€™re not impoverished they’€™ve got too much money.    

YOLISA: In 2001, the health minister introduced national policy guidelines on managing and preventing genetic birth defects and disorders. The professor says at least something’€™s being done.

PROFESSOR CHRISTIANSON: At least we have recognised it and this is what I say, one has to give credit ‘€“ the issue’€™s been recognised, efforts are being made to resolve the problem.

YOLISA: But much more needs to be done. The report recommends that countries should have national co-ordination to help run a sustained programme; to assist with the education of their communities and stakeholders.

PROFESSOR CHRISTIANSON: The most important thing is to teach and train the primary care practitioners ‘€“ a massive challenge. One of the responsibilities which we’€™re adding to others is ‘€˜recognise the children with birth defects and refer appropriately’€™. We’€™ve got to teach them to do that. We’€™ve developed the teaching programme ‘€“ we’€™re starting to teach. This was done with government and government is helping by paying for the training of the nurses. But we need more people to teach the nurses and more money to do the teaching. These are the challenges.

YOLISA: I put it to the professor that most reports are just that ‘€“ reports. They are known for gathering dust.

PROFESSOR CHRISTIANSON: Well, I’€™m pleased to say that, shortly after this report was put out – the March of Dimes were approached by the World Health Organisation and at the moment we are hoping that a meeting will occur within a couple of months with experts from around the world and especially developing countries to look at this report and to plot a way forward. And we’€™re talking here the practicalities ‘€“ not talking a pie in the sky. Yes, it may gather dust. But not if I and my colleagues have anything to do with it. And although this report will eventually get covered by other reports, I hope that it is a start of a new era where people WILL think on world Health Day about children with birth defects.  


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