More than 16,000 babies a year are born with birth defects, new figures show, but experts fear that new spikes in cases may go unnoticed due to reporting flaws. The statistics for 2010 show that around one in 45 of all babies is born with a defect including Down's syndrome, spina bifida and heart abnormalities.
They occur as a result of genetic problems and environmental insults – the most notorious of which was thalidomide, the anti-nausea drug given to pregnant women in the 1960s which resulted in hundreds of babies being born with severe limb abnormalities.
Since the thalidomide scandal, the number of birth defects has been monitored to provide early warning of new threats. But researchers at Queen Mary College who provided the latest figures said they were based on six regional registers covering only a third of the population of England and Wales.
Professor Joan Morris, who led the study, said: "We remain concerned that data for substantial parts of the country are not currently monitored, meaning large regional increases in congenital anomalies could go unnoticed and their causes not investigated."
The most common problems were heart defects which affected five in every 1,000 births. Some required operations soon after birth and 7 per cent of babies affected died before the age of one. Spina bifida and similar neural tube defects affected one in 1,000 births. Many of these have been prevented by giving pregnant women folic acid.