Health officials say birth defects study inconclusive

YAKIMA — A study into several cases of a rare birth defect in Eastern Washington has found no common cause, the Washington Department of Health announced Tuesday.

State health officials began investigating in January after an investigation found several cases of anencephaly, a fatal birth defect that occurs when a baby’s brain doesn’t develop as it should during the first month of pregnancy, in Yakima, Benton and Franklin counties.

In a statement Tuesday, the Health Department said state and local public health investigators found no significant differences between women who had healthy pregnancies and those affected by the fatal birth defect.

The higher than expected number of cases could be coincidental, but health officials will continue to monitor births in the region through 2013 to see if more can be learned, the statement said.

Typically, one or two cases of anencephaly would be expected in about 10,000 annual births, but an investigation found about eight cases per 10,000 births in the three-county area.

The defect is generally caused by a lack of folic acid in the mother’s diet or by certain medications or hereditary conditions. Women with diabetes, smokers, obese women and Hispanic women are also at higher risk.

Women of childbearing age should take 400-1,000 micrograms of folic acid daily, either from foods fortified with folic acid or a supplement, under the recommendations of a U.S. preventive task force. Women also are advised to see a health care professional when planning a pregnancy or as soon as they determine they are pregnant.

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