Number of babies born with defects is more than double Government's figure

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The number of babies born with health defects is more than twice the official figure, the government body responsible for collecting the data has admitted.

The number of babies born with health defects is more than twice the official figure, the government body responsible for collecting the data has admitted.

The Office of National Statistics was told of 7,284 babies born in 2000 with abnormalities ranging from Down's syndrome to spina bifida – a rate of 1.2 per cent of all births. But officials say the true figure is 15,000 to 20,000 – between 2 and 3 per cent. Generations of parents have been ignorant of the risks, and authorities have been unable to plan for the care of severely disabled children because of the under-reporting over the past 40 years.

The discrepancy appeared afterimprovements to the National Congenital Anomaly System, set up in 1964 to monitor trends in birth defects. About 100 serious anomalies or groups of anomalies are recorded, including heart defects, disorders of the central nervous system and genital abnormalities. Minor defects have been excluded since 1990.

The monitoring system was set up after the thalidomide disaster in the early 1960s, to give early warning of a similar disaster. But many defects are not obvious at birth and a lack of staff assigned to gathering the information has meant many affected babies were not recorded.

In 2000, the four areas of the country on the new system – Wales, Trent, Mersey and North West Thames – had an average rate of 212 babies with defects per 10,000 births, three times higher than the average for the rest of England of 68 per 10,000 births.

Beverley Botting, the head of the Congenital Anomalies Register, said: "The main purpose of the national register was surveillance to see if the rates were changing from year to year. The data has been useful but we issued a health warning with it. We got the data from a single source – a clerk in each health authority with 101 jobs to do and only limited information available."

Figures for 2001 show the number of babies with birth defects is slightly down on 2000 at 6,989, a rate of 117 per 10,000 births.

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