Health Health Matters

Down syndrome – what you need to know

October 20 is National Down Syndrome Day and we’re asking you to consider whether you are still holding on to the old stereotyped ideas about persons born with this condition. Most of us are aware of the typical appearance of those born with Down syndrome and that they have delayed physical and mental development. However, did you know that with proper care and stimulation many of them can live happy and productive lives?

Around one in 500 babies in South Africa is born with Down syndrome, a condition in which there are three instead on two chromosomes no 21 in every cell. The exact cause is unknown but it is related to the cell division which occurs right after conception and not to anything the parents did, age, race, or socioeconomic status.

At birth, Down syndrome is diagnosed based on characteristic features. Some of these are eyes which slant upwards, folds covering the inside corners of the eyes, a small mouth which makes the tongue appear large, small and low set ears, a pinkie which bends inwards, loose joints, and poor muscle tone. The condition is usually confirmed by conducting a chromosome analysis on a blood sample.

In the past, babies with Down syndrome were often placed in care centres for the intellectually disabled, either right after birth or at a young age. Today we know that most children with Down syndrome only have mild to moderate intellectual impairment. This means that they will just take a bit longer, and need additional stimulation, to achieve the basic developmental milestones.

Those with Down syndrome are prone to certain health conditions including heart defects, frequent respiratory infections, and visual problems. However, with the modern advanced health care, they live on average to around 50 years of age.

Individuals with Down syndrome differ widely in their physical and mental abilities. Their future abilities cannot be predicted at birth and also depends to a large extent on the opportunities they are given to develop to their full potential.

In terms of current legislation most children with Down syndrome now attend normal schools and, like any other child, develop new skills and unique talents as they grow up. Many are also able to find work after school in jobs that suit their skills and mental abilities, thereby taking up their role or contributing members of society.

Down Syndrome South Africa provides support and guidance for parents of children with Down syndrome and you can find out more on their website at


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