For the past three years, Central Washington has seen unusually high numbers of babies born with a rare birth defect. No one has determined a cause. Public health officials are holding two listening sessions this week to learn more from community members.
For babies born with anencephaly, the defect is fatal. During the first four weeks of pregnancy, the baby’s brain and skull do not form completely.
There have been 23 babies born with the defect in Yakima, Benton and Franklin counties from January 2010 to 2013. Normally, health officials would expect to see one or two cases.
Investigators at the state health department compared healthy pregnancies to those involving babies born with the defect. They checked out risk factors, like nitrates in well water, obesity and Hispanic ethnicity. Nothing seemed to be a cause.
Juliet Van Eenwyk, state epidemiologist for non-infectious conditions, said now health officials are turning to the public for more clues, with two listening sessions this week.
“We want to hear from people locally, in case there is something going on locally that we’re not aware of,” Van Eenwyk said.
Comments at the sessions will be brought to an advisory committee made up of local and national experts, Van Eenwyk said.
None of the women with affected pregnancies were geographically clustered into smaller groups within the three counties.
[One other factor in the prevalence of anencephaly is whether women are getting enough folic acid. Van Eenwyk said in this tri-county area, rates of women reporting taking folic acid before getting pregnant is lower than the state average.
People have raised other concerns as well, Van Eenwyk said, including pesticide exposure, living near the Hanford Nuclear Reservation and radiation from Fukushima.
To help prevent anencephaly women who are pregnant can take the right amount of folic acid every day, test private well water for nitrates and take prenatal vitamins, Van Eenwyk said.
The listening sessions will be on Tuesday at the Sunnyside Community Center and Wednesday at the Benton-Franklin Health District office in Kennewick. Both start at 6 p.m.