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Three counties in Washington State are at a loss to explain a drastic increase in severe birth defects recorded by area hospitals in the last five years. While cases of anencephaly, a rare neural tube defect, are usually written off as flukes, the rates in Yakima, Benton and Franklin counties are so high that researchers have begun looking for a specific cause.

Inexplicable Cluster Of Anencephaly Cases Strikes Washington State

At least 41 women have lost newborns to anencephaly since 2010 in the three counties.

Conversations across the country have turned to birth defects in the last year, as thousands of families file lawsuits claiming America’s most popular morning sickness drug, Zofran, causes congenital abnormalities like cleft palate.

But the strange eruption of anencephaly cases, which occurs in Washington at a rate almost 5 times as high as the national average, has highlighted a number of government policies that may actually conceal these sort of birth defect “clusters,” rather than help investigate them.

Does Government Policy Get In The Way Of Birth Defect Research?

In a revealing Seattle Times exposé, reporters JoNel Aleccia and Justin Mayo say a majority of the 41 mothers haven’t been contacted yet by Washington State’s health officials. Nor have researchers ordered any tests to determine whether or not the cases of anencephaly are linked to genetic mutations, environmental toxins, or both.

Interviews and tests aren’t required by law, Aleccia and Mayo note, but both are considered “standard protocol […] by researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.”

Meanwhile, the state’s Medicaid program continues to follow a set of rules that limit pregnant women’s access to folic acid, a B vitamin known to decrease the risk for neural tube defects including anencephaly.

FDA Dismissed Birth Defect Concerns, Says Prominent Researcher

One researcher, Duke University’s Allison Ashley-Koch, noticed the state’s abnormally high anencephaly numbers early, but she says government officials never followed up on her concerns.

Tracking birth defect records from around the nation, Ashley-Koch saw Washington’s cluster of anencephaly a full two years ago. But when she contacted the CDC to urge an investigation, the Center seemed uninterested. “Basically, they just said, ‘Thank you, but no thank you,’ she told the reporters.

Pressed for a response to Ashley-Koch’s allegations, CDC officials told the Times they couldn’t remember the professor’s call for help.

Most States Don’t Track Birth Defects, & Many Doctors Fail To Report Them

Less than half of all states have an “active” birth defect surveillance system, which would filter medical records for birth defects. Washington isn’t one of them. Instead, the state’s health department relies on doctors to take the initiative and report congenital abnormalities themselves.

That doesn’t always happen, a follow-up report from the Seattle Times suggests, meaning the true number of birth defects may be severely under-reported. Factor in the rarity of most birth defects, and you have a system that could be missing clusters like the one in Yakima, Benton and Franklin throughout the US. Valuable opportunities to understand the causes of birth defects are probably being lost along the way, too.

It’s only now, in response to the Seattle Times’ reporting, that Washington Department of Health officials have gathered a group of experts to pursue an explanation for the mysterious birth defect cluster.

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