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December 7, 2009

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Free milk for babies with gene disorder

CHINA has started to provide free milk powder to babies from poor families suffering a congenital metabolic disorder that may cause brain damage and mental retardation.

The program, launched last Friday, targets 500 babies suffering from phenylketonuria (PKU) in the central and western regions of China over the next five years, said Mao Meng, director of China's Maternal and Child Health Surveillance Office.

PKU is a genetic disorder of metabolism that can cause an excessive amount of phenylalanine (Phe) in the body.

If left untreated, it can affect brain development, causing mental retardation, brain damage and seizures. However, the disorder can be treated with a low-Phe diet.

Early treatment is vital to prevent brain damage and low-Phe milk powder is the most effective therapy, said Yang Jianping, director of the newborn screening center in Shanxi Province, which the program covers.

"Patients can live a normal life with life-long diet treatment," Yang said.

Each baby with the disease will receive the milk powder for free for three years, said Guo Zhanying, an official of Shanxi Province's health department.

This will save families about 20,000 yuan (US$2,929) a year, a significant amount for poor families, Guo said.

About one in 10,000 newborns is inflicted with the disorder in China, according to health authorities. Shanxi Province has reported 69 cases of PKU since 2004 and now screens newborn babies.

United States-based milk powder manufacturer Mead Johnson has offered to donate 20 million yuan worth of low-Phe milk powder and a training program on screening newborns for the disorder.


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