Chinese authorities are to distribute free folic acid supplements to 12 million rural women of child-bearing age. The move is aimed at preventing birth defects in future babies, the Ministry of Health said Thursday.
The program seeks to provide the supplements by the end of 2009 to all rural Chinese women wanting a child, China Daily quoted the ministry as saying.
In January the country's National Population and Family Planning Commission had proposed free pre-pregnancy screenings to prevent birth defects.
China has 800,000 to 1.2 million babies born with birth defects each year, accounting for 4 to 6 percent of the new births.
Government statistics show that among the infants born with defects, 20,000 have congenital heart diseases, 100,000 suffer neurological defects, 50,000 have cleft lip and 30,000 have Down's syndrome.
Of the babies born with defects, only 30 percent can be cured or treated. Another 40 percent suffer lifelong deformities, while the remaining die shortly after birth, health experts have said.
But scientific research has shown that appropriate consumption of folic acid can reduce the incidence of the neural tube defect by 50 to 70 percent.