03/17/2014 04:48 pm ET Updated May 17, 2014

Preventing Disabilities: A Collective Responsibility

Globally, about 1 billion people live with disabilities. Most of these people live in the developing nations. And, predictably, the People Living With Disabilities (PLWD) are the world's largest minority group.

As living with disabilities is often characterized with poverty, stigmatization and abuse, global efforts for the support of people with disabilities should include poverty alleviation measures as well as economic empowerment, improved employment opportunities, and equal access to education, health and social amenities, among others. Likewise, the defense of the rights of people living with disabilities should be frontline in Human Right Charters in all countries because of the numerous and diverse abuses that they are predisposed to.

Yet, on second thought, can't we reduce the incidence and overall prevalence of disabilities over time? Since the causes of and predispositions to these impairments and disabilities are an open secret, the incidence of disabilities can be reduced -- like that of any other issue of global importance! However, this reduction calls for increased efforts at sensitizing the public on the various causes of disabilities and how to prevent them.

That more than 70 percent of people living with disabilities are in the developing world is no coincidence. It merely reflects the state, availability and accessibility of (public) health facilities.

One very crucial health service that is quite significant to the development of disabilities is the antenatal, delivery and postnatal health service. The absence of adequate and effective healthcare to pregnant women during any or all the phases of their pregnancies has been implicated in the development of disabilities in their babies after birth.

A significant number of the people with disabilities today are the result of mismanaged deliveries and also as a result of delay in accessing specialist's assistance in cases of complications during or after birth.

All pregnant women must be able to receive effective mother and child healthcare, but this is still a dream in the developing world especially to women in rural areas and city slums as these services are too expensive, or too far and inaccessible, or totally absent, such that these women therefore have to patronize untrained birth attendants with the associated increase in risks in childhood and maternal morbidity and mortality.

Efforts must be made by governments at all levels to reduce delays in accessing health care by pregnant women. An initiative such as the Abiye (Safe Motherhood) Project of the Ondo State government of Nigeria has been globally acclaimed for reducing maternal and childhood morbidity and mortality, and should therefore be emulated by governments all over Africa.

On the other hand, a person's socioeconomic status can also predispose him/her to disabilities because there is an undeniable relationship between poverty and disability: People of low socioeconomic status are more predisposed to disabilities than those of a higher socioeconomic status.

In fact, poverty and disability form a vicious cycle. People with disabilities are more likely to end up poor. Poverty increases a person's vulnerability to disabilities and disabilities increase a person's vulnerability to poverty. This vicious cycle must be broken.

Governments, non-governmental organizations, and individuals all over the globe must ally to end the unholy alliance of poverty and disabilities.

Generally, the following measures are quite important in the prevention of disabilities: Pregnant women are advised not to take medications without doctors' prescription especially during the first trimester of their pregnancy because of the risk of developing birth defects in the babies with resulting functional impairments and limiting disabilities. And since women are often unaware that they are already pregnant at this early phase, this directive also applies to all women intending to get pregnant.

Certain medications and consumptions should be completely avoided throughout pregnancy. An excellent example is alcohol. Cheap, available and culturally acceptable, but alcohol consumed in pregnancy causes Fetal Alcohol Syndrome -- babies that are unusually small and with facial abnormalities, learning and behavioral difficulties among other problems. Cannabis, heroin, cocaine and tobacco are likewise no-go areas.

X-rays are "X's" because they were unknown at the time of their discovery and because they are no-go areas to the unprotected. By extension, they should be avoided by pregnant women because the ionizing effects of radiation are more on developing babies than adults.

In conclusion, extra care should be taken to prevent accidents of all types as they are very likely to leave behind permanent disabilities in their victims. I will not forget in haste the story of Kehinde Omotoyole whom our organisation is helping with his hospital bills. Kehinde is a four-month-old baby who lost his left leg to a domestic fire incident about 10 weeks ago. It is disheartening that Kehinde lost his limb even before he was able to use it. When he finally grows up and is able to ask questions, will the explanation about what led to the loss of his limb be tenable and acceptable? Only time can tell.

Preventing disabilities is a collective responsibility; the government has huge responsibilities and so does every one of us! A little precaution by all makes this world a safe place!


Dr Freeman Osonuga is the Founder and Executive Director of Heal The World Foundation Nigeria.