Health officials will hold a pair of "listening sessions" in Sunnyside and Kennewick this week to hear from concerned community members about the high number of anencephaly cases in Benton, Franklin and Yakima counties.
Babies with anencephaly, a rare and fatal neural tube birth defect, are born missing parts of their brain and skull.
Seven cases were reported in the three local counties last year, with the rate of 8.7 per 10,000 births -- more than four times the national rate, according to information from the state Department of Health. The three counties' rate for 2010-12 was similarly high.
The listening sessions are Tuesday at the Sunnyside Community Center and Wednesday at the Benton-Franklin Health District in Kennewick.
Both start at 6 p.m. Spanish interpretation will be available.
A study led by the state health department found no clear cause for the high rate of local cases. Officials combed through medical records, comparing affected pregnancies to healthy pregnancies. They also considered possibilities such as effects from the Hanford site, agriculture and nitrate exposure.
An advisory committee of experts is forming to look further into the issue. Input from the listening sessions will be passed onto the group.
Juliet VanEenwyk, a state epidemiologist, said the sessions are a forum for community members to discuss their concerns and provide insight.
"Sometimes people (who live in a community) throw things out that nobody else has mentioned. That is the purpose -- to hear what their concerns and thoughts are," she told the Herald.
There are steps women can take to lower the risk, including taking a daily multivitamin with 400 micrograms of folic acid.
Lack of enough folic acid before and during the early stages of pregnancy is a known risk factor for anencephaly. Low rates of folic acid vitamin use have been found in this area, the state health department said.
Other risk factors can include diabetes, obesity and some medications. And Hispanic women are at greater risk, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Experts also recommend that women who get their drinking water from private wells have the wells tested regularly for nitrates and bacteria. While nitrates haven't specifically been linked to anencephaly, "We know high nitrates can be linked to birth defects," said Dr. Amy Person, health officer for the Benton-Franklin Health District.
She noted that it's difficult to get a clear picture of the national anencephaly rate because not all areas report in the same way or to the same place. Officials also may look at gathering more data to determine whether the higher local rate is new or a condition that's existed for a while.
"Even if our regular numbers tend to be higher, we want to make sure we're doing all we can to ensure healthy pregnancies," Person said.
She said women of childbearing age should adhere to the recommended precautions.
"We didn't identify any new systematic problem or effect that was causing this (high rate) to occur. We're continuing to investigate," she said. "I think if people follow the current recommendations for safe and healthy pregnancy, they can be assured they are doing everything they need to be doing."
VanEenwyk noted that while anencephaly rates have been higher in the three-county area, "most pregnancies in the area are healthy."
The majority of women who've had a pregnancy affected by a neural tube defect can later go onto have healthy babies, and they can reduce their risk of recurrence by seeing a genetic counselor and following guidelines, she said.
The Sunnyside Community Center is at 1521 S. First St. The Benton-Franklin Health District is at 7102 W. Okanogan Place, Kennewick.
-- Sara Schilling: 582-1529; email@example.com; Twitter: @saraTCHerald