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Officials continue birth defect probe

Dan Wheat

Capital Press

The Washington State Department of Health says a trend of abnormally high birth defects continued in southcentral Washington in 2013 and that it doesn't know why.

YAKIMA, Wash. — Another seven cases of a rare, terminal birth defect were found in babies in three southcentral Washington counties in 2013, the state Department of Health says.

It was the fourth year of abnormally high cases of anencephaly, a defect in which babies are born with parts of their brains and skulls missing. They are stillborn or die shortly after birth.

There were 23 cases in Yakima, Franklin and Benton counties in 2010, 2011 and 2012, the department previously has said. That’s 8.4 cases per 10,000 births and four times the national average of 2.1 per 10,000, the department said. The seven cases in 2013 are 8.7 cases per 10,000 births.

No common denominator in the cases has been found and it may be a combination of social, economic, genetic and environmental factors, Mandy Stahre, the department’s epidemiologist, said April 22 in releasing the 2013 number during a visit to Yakima.

“You can’t ignore all the risk factors that we see within this population and some of the reasons why we have the higher rates,” Stahre told the Yakima Herald.

High rates of obesity, lack of eating healthy foods, lack of prenatal care, particularly lack of folic acid can all be factors, she said.

The cases were not clustered in any geographic area or socioeconomic or ethnic group, Tim Church, a department spokesman told Capital Press.

They were not seasonal which decreases the likelihood they are caused by farm and orchard pesticides, he said. They are not concentrated near the Hanford site and most cases were in homes on public water which is regularly tested for nitrate levels, he said.

About 60 percent of the cases are Hispanic but the population is 50 to 60 percent Hispanic, Church said.

The department has reviewed records that include occupations and medical histories but has not interviewed mothers or families, Church said. A March 1 CNN story faulted the department for not interviewing mothers. But Church said many cases were more than a year old when the department began looking at them and that people don’t remember what they ate that far back.

“The best way to look for anything obvious is medical records because then you are not relying on someone’s memory,” he said.

The department will conduct listening sessions in the area in May and will convene of new committee of experts in June, including personnel from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, to look for answers and consider what to do next.

In early March, Allan Felsot, a Washington State University Extension environmental toxicologist, said the abnormal high rate could be a statistical variance. There are always variances outside of an average, he said.



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