In 2013, seven cases of the fatal birth defect anencephaly were recorded in Yakima, Benton and Franklin counties, the Washington State Department of Health reported Tuesday.
The Health Department has been investigating records of anencephaly since finding last year that 2012 saw 12 cases in the three-county area, far more than were expected given the population size.
Anencephaly is a neural tube defect that happens within the first four to six weeks of pregnancy. It occurs when the protective neural tube fails to close completely around the spinal cord at the base of the brain. It’s similar to spina bifida, which occurs when the neural tube fails to close around the base of the spine. But unlike spina bifida, anencephaly is uniformly fatal. Most fetuses with the defect are stillborn; the rest die within hours or days of birth.
With seven cases in 2013, the three-county area logged a rate of 8.7 cases per 10,000 births — more than four times higher than the national rate of 2.1 per 10,000 births. The rate was similar in 2012 with 12 cases; the total number of births in the area each year affects the rate.
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The Health Department is continuing to investigate possible causes for the abnormally high rates; officials have talked to the families affected and tried to determine what they ate, what they drank and where they lived at the time of their pregnancy, along with myriad other questions. So far they have not turned up any one common factor to link the births. They were not clustered geographically, or seasonally, or in any particular time period, said Mandy Stahre, an epidemiologist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention who works with the state.
In this area, high rates of poverty, teen pregnancy, obesity and diabetes, along with poor access to healthy foods and access to prenatal care all affect the health of women’s pregnancies.
Stahre said the Health Department is forming an advisory committee made up of CDC researchers, other investigators, local providers, health officials and other community leaders to talk about what the department’s next steps should be. The committee will have its first meeting in June.
In May, the department will host two community listening sessions; one in Yakima County and one in Benton-Franklin counties. These will be open to anyone in the public who wants to come and talk to health officials about potential causes or risk factors that offiicals might not be aware of.