Experts are at a loss as to the cause of a spike in birth defects in rural counties of Washington State. According to a recent CNN story, Sara Barron — a nurse of 30 years — reported seeing increased cases of anencephaly to the state’s Department of Health in 2012. Officials have yet to pinpoint a source of the defect, which is often thought to include environmental factors.
Barron became concerned after witnessing two babies born with anencephaly in two months at her hospital. Prior to that she had only seen two other cases in her long career. Anencephaly is a devastating birth defect that results in infants being born with partially formed skulls and brains. The children are often still-born or die shortly after birth. After speaking to an obstetrician friend nearby, she learned that the doctor had just witnessed a case of the defect as well. Three cases in two months prompted her report.
The subsequent scouring of birth records by epidemiologists discovered 23 cases of anencephaly in a three year period. That was a rate of 8.4 cases per 10,000 live births, four times higher than the national average.
Many argue that the study of the birth records, alone, is unlikely to help the experts discover the cause.
"Medical record reviews might not have captured all information, preventing a cause from being identified," the Department of Health for Washington State wrote in a press release that was quoted in Tech Times.
Andrea Jackman, who gave birth to a child with spinal bifida during the same time, worries that the epidemiologists haven’t done enough in searching for a cause. Spinal bifida is a birth defect similar to anencephaly and also classified as a neural tube defect. Jackman says she was never contacted by the researchers and asked questions about her diet or supplements she may have been taking.
Mandy Stahre, the lead epidemiologist in the initial investigation, said mothers weren’t contacted because of the delicate nature of the topic. Many mothers who learn that their unborn child has a neural tube defect must make the decision to terminate the pregnancy or give birth to child who is unlikely to live.
“This is a devastating diagnosis, and we know that for a lot of these women they had to make some hard choices," Stahre said. "We have to weigh how invasive we want to be with these types of interviews.”
Jackman, though, argues she would much rather help other parents avoid the turmoil of such a diagnosis than be shielded from such questions.
"What are you researching if you haven't physically called the families to find out?" she asks.