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Birth Defects: Experts Stumped by Washington State's Birth Issues

By Clyde Hughes   |   Tuesday, 18 Feb 2014 11:51 AM

Washington state officials who noticed a rash of birth defects in Yakima and nearby counties last summer could not pinpoint a source, but health experts believe such clusters are coincidental rather than a sign of an underlying health problem.

The Yakima Herald-Republic reported last July that health experts could not find common contributing factors to a high number of reported fatal birth defects in Yakima County in 2012. 

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"State and local public health investigators found no significant differences between women who had healthy pregnancies and those affected by anencephaly, a rare neural tube defect," a county health department said in a statement.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 27 women had pregnancies that resulted in neural tube defects in Yakima, Franklin, and Benton counties between 2010 and 2013. Of the 27 women, 23 were affected by anencephaly, a birth defect that leaves infants with a large part of the brains and skulls missing.

Anencephaly had a rate of 8.4 per 10,000 live births in the region, which is far higher than the national rate of 2.1 cases per 10,000, according to the CDC.

"We looked at education; didn't see any differences," Mandy Stahre, a CDC epidemic intelligence officer, told the Herald-Republic. "We didn't see any differences in BMI (body-mass index, related to obesity). We looked at insurance status, country of birth of the mother. We looked at other health factors ... We didn’t see anything" that linked the cases.

Susie Ball, a genetics counselor at the Central Washington Genetics Program at Yakima Valley Memorial Hospital, told NBC News that there have been "eight or nine" additional anencephaly and spina bifida cases since the summer. 

Spina bifida is another birth defect in which the neural tube, which forms the brain and spine, fails to close properly.

"It does strike me as a lot," Ball said.

NBC News reported that Sara Barron, 58, a nurse in charge of infection control and quality assurance at Prosser Memorial Hospital in Yakima, first noticed the trend last year. She said that over her 30-year career, she had seen perhaps one or two cases of anencephaly before the recent cases.

"And now I was sitting at Prosser, with 30 deliveries a month and there are two cases in a six-month period," Barron said. "Then, I was talking to another doctor about it and she has a third one coming. My teeth dropped. It was like, 'Oh my God.'"

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