The spurt of microcephaly (where the head of the newborn is unusually small) cases in Brazil linked to Zika virus infection during pregnancy has put the health system on alert . While there is no robust system for monitoring the numbers of birth defects in the country, the Interdisciplinary School of Health Sciences (ISHS) at the University of Pune has taken up a key study to measure the number of cases of congenital anomaly affected births.
“Zika virus outbreak tells us why India urgently needs a surveillance of birth defects . Unless we know the usual number of babies born with this condition each year, we will not be able to notice an increase in the numbers of mirocephaly cases or other types of birth defects,” Dr Anita Kar, head of the ISHS told The Indian Express.
The study is being funded by the University Grants Commission project under its University with Potential for Excellence programme. “We have been able to identify that 2.2 per cent of babies in India are born with congenital anomaly. In absolute numbers, this translates into nearly six lakh babies being born each year with congenital anomaly, with heart defects being the most prevalent condition,” Dr Kar said.
The study is still underway at hospitals run by Pune Municipal Corporation and Pimpri-Chinchwad Municipal Corporation, she said. Based on these data, the researchers have convened an international meeting to identify research priorities that could outline the formation of a birth defects programme, Dr Kar said. They have also planned to mark the World Birth Defects Day on March 3.
A quarter of all global neonatal deaths occur in India. Congenital anomalies constitute the fifth largest cause of neonatal mortality in the country, but national estimates of the prevalence of these conditions are still lacking. “More studies are needed to determine the impact of congenital anomalies on neonatal mortality in India,” said Dr Kar, who has also recently initiated a Facebook page on issues related to birth defects in India https://www.facebook.com/Birth-Defects-India-1655601181370743/
State to measure head circumference of newborn
Pregnant women constitute the group with the highest risk of Zika virus infection. However, since no national data is available on the number of microcephaly affected births, the state has now agreed to monitor the head circumference of the newborn in addition to the weight.
“This will at least give us a baseline data on the number of microcephaly cases,” says Dr Aarti Kinikar, member of the state’s expert committee on communicable diseases. As part of the Government of India’s surveillance effort, B J Medical College and Sassoon general hospital have been identified by the state to set up a birth defects registry, which will provide data on six common birth defects among babies.