Over a six-year period, 45 babies in Yakima, Benton and Franklin counties were born with anencephaly, a neural-tube defect that is uniformly fatal.
YAKIMA — After a nearly two-year investigation, the state Department of Health has concluded that there was no sole factor to blame for a cluster of fatal birth defects in Yakima and neighboring counties between 2010 and 2016, according to a report released last week.
In that six-year period, according to the department, 45 babies in Yakima, Benton and Franklin counties were born with anencephaly, a neural-tube defect that is uniformly fatal. Anencephaly affects fetuses within the first few weeks of pregnancy, and causes them to be born missing pieces of their skull and brain and without a fully developed neural sac to protect the spinal cord. Babies born with anencephaly die within hours or a few days.
“Neither the descriptive epidemiology of the anencephaly-affected pregnancies, the medical records-based case-control study of pregnancies from January 2010-January 2013, interviews of mothers of (neural tube defect)-affected pregnancies, nor investigation of community concerns identified a preventable cause for most of the NTD-affected pregnancies,” the department’s report said.
After consulting with public-health officials involved in researching the cause of the cluster, the Department of Health suspended its investigation in late 2016 and is now focusing on surveillance, outreach and prevention, the report said.
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The average national rate of the defect is 2 out of every 10,000 babies. The Yakima-Benton-Franklin rate was four times that, with more than 8 of every 10,000 babies affected between January 2010 and September 2016.
A major factor identified by public-health officials, both in this investigation and in established literature on anencephaly, is a mother’s folic-acid intake prior to and in the first several weeks of pregnancy.
Women in the Yakima-Benton-Franklin county area whose pregnancies were affected by neural-tube defects showed low folic-acid intake compared with women in the rest of Washington, the report said.
Folic acid is found in leafy green vegetables, citrus fruits, beans and — because white flour is fortified with folic acid — grain-based food like bread, rice, cereal and pasta.
In 2016, the Food and Drug Administration approved folic-acid fortification of corn masa flour,…