Later age pregnancies and unhealthy lifestyles are behind the country's rising number of birth deformities, health experts have warned.
At least one million babies are born with defects in China each year, an incidence rate of 60 out of every 1,000.
"The rate is three times that of developed countries," Professor Li Zhu, director with the National Center for Maternity and Infant Health said.
The warning was announced during a national birth defect prevention day yesterday.
The late childbearing trend has become one of the major factors behind congenital defects, Li said.
Women over 35 who give birth face greater risk of their babies being born with mental and physical defects, Li added.
Defects include cleft palettes, neural tube defects, abnormal numbers of fingers or toes, congenital heart disease and water on the brain.
Health experts consider the best childbearing age is between 25 and 30 years old.
But many Chinese couples, especially urbanites, are choosing to have a child later in life because of heavy work pressures and fast-paced lifestyles.
Apart from late childbearing, birth defects occur for many other reasons, including insufficient consumption of certain trace elements primarily folic acid and iodine, exposure to health hazardous pollutants, and long term unhealthy lifestyles.
Among the babies born with defects, just 30 percent of them can be cured or treated. Another 40 percent suffer lifelong deformities, while the remaining die shortly after birth, health experts said.
Statistics from the Ministry of Health show that birth defects affect one in 10 Chinese households, imposing a total annual financial burden of one billion yuan.
Nearly 30 million households are raising or have raised babies born with defects.
"The operations, medication, treatment and welfare cost 30 billion yuan for all of the poor babies," Li said.
"So we should adopt a prevention first method."
Li encouraged couples to undergo health examinations before and during pregnancy to lower the risk of birth defects.
Most of the defects can be detected through checks and early prevention measures can be taken.
Couples have the right to abort a pregnancy if defects are detected, Li said.
"While it's indeed a life, doctors won't recommend abortion unless lethal defects are found."
Li also called for people to have premarital health checks.
Since it was made optional nationwide in October 2003, the number of people undergoing the check has dropped tremendously.
To redress the situation, many local governments have started to offer free checks.
(China Daily September 13, 2007)