Every year, an estimated 8 million children are born with serious birth defects of genetic or partially genetic origin, and thousands of children are born with defects of post-conception origin that come from their mothers' being exposed to environmental agents, drugs, or diseases.
The March of Dimes (MoD) has long focused its attention on the public health problem of birth defects in children in the US. However, realizing that 80% of them occur in developing nations because of the more frequent occurrences of marriage between blood relatives and women of advanced age having children, the foundation opened its Office of Global Programs and expanded its initiatives to the world arena.
This year MoD published the March of Dimes Global Report on Birth Defects, jointly devised by MoD's Office of Global Programs and Hoffman & Hoffman, the first such effort to analyze the incidence of birth defects around the world. It tabulates the information in statistical form and makes recommendations for cost-effective national and international interventions that can reduce birth defects.
"The study was designed to be an advocacy tool for the MoD, government agencies, and women with children who have birth defects," says Marshall Hoffman, president of Hoffman & Hoffman. "Our goal was to raise money for the cause so that programs could be put in place to help these women."
MoD and Hoffman & Hoffman worked together to recruit an international team of experts to gather information about birth defects from 190 countries. The information was analyzed to identify trends throughout the different levels of economic development and geographic regions.
These efforts resulted in an 84-page report on birth defects and a seven-color wall map that illustrated the different kinds of birth defects and their prevalence in each region.
The PR team worked with writers, producers, and communications professionals to promote the report to the international media. A detailed press release and press kit that included graphics, datasets, and b-roll were assembled to make the report more accessible to journalists.
MoD and Hoffman & Hoffman were trying to reach policymakers through extensive media coverage. "There were all kinds of instruments out there for children, but none that specifically dealt with birth defects," says Hoffman.
The January 30 global release of the report resulted in more than 1,000 media hits around the globe within the first 48 hours, including the AP, BBC World Service Radio, and The Wall Street Journal.
MoD has since established dialogues with government agencies around the world.
A key result was World Health Organization (WHO) recognition. "For the longest time, the WHO had not afforded enough attention to the issue of birth defects," says Chris P. Howsom, VP of global programs for MoD. "Within three days of the report being published, we got a call from WHO saying that they would like to have a joint meeting... to address the issue."
On September 25, the director general's office of the WHO signed off on an initiative to back programming on birth defects, giving support to government agencies that might have had unsuccessful programs already in place.
Hoffman & Hoffman hopes to work with MoD again to continue to raise awareness of the issue.
PR team: March of Dimes (White Plains, NY) and Hoffman & Hoffman Worldwide (Washington)
Campaign: March of Dimes Global Report on Birth Defects
Duration: February 2004 to January 2006
In building worldwide awareness of birth defects, MoD wisely knew that it would have to back up its claims with solid, comprehensive research. With Hoffman & Hoffman's help, it succeeded in grabbing the world's attention through mass-media coverage, culminating in getting WHO backing for programming on birth defects.
Another facet was being able to convey to donors that solutions for the problem could be cost-effective and did not have to be expensive and high-tech.