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Fatal birth defects that leave babies born without part of their brain or skull have been striking three counties in rural Washington State at a rate at least four times the national average.
A rising number of defects among babies has been hitting rural Washington, with anencephaly — babies born without part of their brain or skull — being a leading problem. This outbreak of extreme health issues has led health officials to examine what might be causing this worrying trend, though the cluster—in Yakima, Franklin, and Benton counties—remains cloaked in mystery, with no single cause pinpointed.
Anencephaly has been striking the three counties in rural Washington state at a rate at least four times the national average. The state’s health department and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in July issued a report that cited 23 cases of anencephaly between January 2010 and January 2013. A genetic counselor has since seen eight or nine more cases of it and spina bifida, NBC News reports. Officials were first alerted by a 58-year-old nurse who had seen no more than two cases of anencephaly in her decades-long career—and then experienced two cases in a six-month span, and learned of a third.
The most worrisome aspect of the whole situation isn’t simply the increased rate of the defects, but the fact that no one is quite sure what’s causing the problem. According to a report by NBC News, the CDC inspected the medical records of hundreds of individuals, looking for disparities between mothers whose children suffered birth defects and those whose children were fine.
Officials dug into the cases of the women involved, and found “no common exposures, conditions, or causes”—having reviewed everything from their education and BMI to their water supply to any medications they took.
Meanwhile a Duke genetics professor who specializes in anencephaly noted that research has shown a correlation between the defect and mold and pesticide exposure, and that the Central Washington area is an agriculture-heavy one. The Seattle Times previously reported on other potential risk factors: A diet lacking in folic acid, a contaminant in cornmeal, and elevated nitrates levels in drinking water. Still, the CDC maintains it could just be a coincidence.
A CDC spokesman said the Washington health department “is continuing to monitor cases and collect information (but) no data are being reported to CDC at this time.”
“Data collection are still ongoing and we look forward to reviewing the analysis of the data expected to be completed some time in the spring,” the CDC spokesman said.
Whether further investigation will pin down a cause is up in the air, according to Daniel Wartenberg, PhD, an epidemiologist at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J.
“It’s a tough problem because you don’t know what you are looking for at all,” he told MedPage Today. “You often don’t get a clear answer, which is frustrating.”
Voice of Russia, NBC News, MedPage Today, Examiner.com, Newser