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WHO forced to apologise for ‘ignorant’ Down Syndrome Facebook post

Global health body wrote that it ‘appreciates feedback’ on Facebook post that drew immediate outrage

Down’s syndrome: What is the genetic condition?

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has issued an apology after sharing a Facebook post that appeared to bracket Down syndrome in with “birth defects”.

The post, which has since been edited, included the syndrome on a list featuring conditions such as congenital heart defects, neural tube defects and haemoglobin disorders, writing that “Some birth defects can be prevented and treated with access to quality maternal and newborn care”.

As explained by the Global Down Syndrome Foundation, Down (or Down’s) syndrome is in fact a genetic condition, not a birth defect, and manifests in many forms and to different extents.

The result was a torrent of outrage from users who immediately inundated the post with responses condemning the error – many of them referring to their own children.

“Prevented?” wrote one user, “Quality maternal care?? You mean medical professionals pushing women to abort their precious, wanted babies, by giving such fear mongering rubbish as you are stating here. My son has Downs Syndrome and is a healthy, strong and much loved child, not a severe birth defect. If WHO cant get this right, what can we trust them with?”

“I cannot begin to tell you how upset and annoyed I am to read this post,” wrote another. “Down Syndrome is not a birth defect! My daughter will never NEVER be described as a birth defect. She is a naturally occurring miracle!”

Another of the many who responded offered the WHO words to use in an apology.

“Let me fix it for you,” she wrote: ““The WHO would like to sincerely apologize for the ignorant and incorrect post we shared earlier. Down syndrome is not a birth defect, simply a genetic difference that naturally occurs at conception. We understand the previous post was extremely upsetting to those with Down syndrome and those who love someone with an extra chromosome. We know people with Down syndrome are limitless in their potential and that their genetic makeup does not define them.’ You can start there....”

The role of language in discrimination against people with Down syndrome is well-known, with a whole vocabulary of obsolete and offensive terminology surrounding the condition still too often in common vernacular use. Children and adults with the syndrome also often suffer serious discrimination in education and employment as well as social stigma.

In a subsequent edit to the post, the organisation wrote: “WHO has edited its original post which, in conflating two distinct messages, unintentionally implied that Down syndrome was preventable through antenatal and newborn care.

“We sincerely apologize for any offence caused by our statement to people living with Down syndrome and their families. WHO commits to providing continued support for all those affected by Down syndrome, including appropriate healthcare, access to specialized services and respectful treatment.

“We appreciate your feedback on our post and will endeavour to ensure that our channels share information on Down syndrome moving forward, that respects the needs and desires of those affected.”

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