A shocking number of babies in a rural area of central Washington have been seen with a rare and fatal birth defect the past four years that leaves them missing some of their skull and brain- and scientists are scratching their heads.
In a three-county area, 26 babies who were born between 2010 and 2013 suffered from anencephaly, which happens early in pregnancy and includes the fetal neural tube not closing.
The amount of cases being seen there recently is four times greater than the national average, said Juliet VanEenwyk, an epidemiologist with the Washington State Department of Health.
Worse yet- health professionals still have no idea why.
“That is the $64,000 question we’re trying to solve,” VanEenwyk says. “Our best guess is that it’s happening for a lot of different reasons.”
An investigation first took place after local health workers made it known in 2012 that the cases were shockingly high, and could not give a real reason why there were so many sprouting up.
Frequent risk-factors for fetal neural tube disorders, like obesity in the mother, did not appear greater among those affected compared with other mothers living in the area.
Furthermore, scientists have stayed stumped as to why spina bifida, another disease caused by neural tubes not fully closing, has not hit moms in central Washington at noticeably higher rates. Typically, spina bifida is twice as common as anencephaly.
“That’s one of the things that’s really strange about this,” VanEenwyk admits.
The state health department will have an advisory group consisting of experts and locals this June hoping to figure out the next move to make in the investigation.
That investigation may include in-depth interviews with women whose babies were affected, in addition to testing for greater levels of pesticides. The secondary test would be tough, though, because pesticides usually move quickly through the body, VanEenwyk says.
Another option is to investigate the amount of folic acid, a B vitamin that can help prevent fetal neural tube disorders, found in pregnant mothers who’re affected.
In the three-county region that’s been hit hardest with such cases, a whopping 60 percent of pregnant women (which is 10 percent higher than the statewide average) fail to take a folic acid supplement- but that figure wasn’t found to be greater among women whose babies were born with the defects, VanEenwyk said.
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