Washington Neural Tube Birth Defect Cluster Stump Investigators

Investigators say they have failed to determine what could be causing women in a part of Washington state to give birth to children experiencing an unusually high rate of neural tube birth defects, but some critics say the investigators could have done more.  

In late September 2013, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced that it was conducting an investigation into a cluster of birth defects in central Washington, including a three-county area around Yakima.

Following several months of review, investigators indicate that they have been unable to find a cause for the cluster, and speculate on whether the spike in birth defects may be a coincidence. However, critics point out that the investigation never actually involved boots on the ground in the affected area, and no mothers or local doctors were ever actually interviewed.

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No one came out and tested water sources, took air samples or did any actual physical investigating in the affected area. CDC investigators relied on an analysis of medical records due to a lack of resources, according to reports. Some are saying that the CDC should have done more, and many mothers who had children with birth defects say they were never told there was a problem in the area.

Concerns about the Washington birth defect cluster were raised by a health-care provider in August 2012, after an excessive number of anencephaly births, which involve serious defects where the baby is born without parts of the brain and skull. Also known as neural tube defects, these problems often arise during the first month of pregnancy, which is a time when many women do not even know they are pregnant.

Neural tube defects typically affect about one in every 1,000 births in the U.S. They are characterized by a hole in the spinal cord or brain because the neural tube does not close completely. This can result in defects that include spina bifida, and brain malformations that may result in parts of the brain missing or protruding from the skull.

The CDC investigators have determined that the anencephaly rate was 8.4 per 10,000 live births, which is four times the national rate of 2.1 per 10,000 live births.

The Washington Department of Health is reminding doctors about the importance of folic acid supplements for women of child-bearing age. Good folic acid levels are considered critical in the prevention of neural tube defects.

CDC officials say that they have received a few more cases after the original investigation and plan to issue a full report later this spring, according to a report by NBC News.

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