Three counties in Eastern Washington facing deadly birth defect

YAKIMA COUNTY, Wash. -- Three counties in Eastern Washington aren't making much progress when it comes to a rare and deadly birth defect. We've reported on the unusual cluster of anencephaly in recent years. Last year, the numbers didn't get better. Now, the Washington State Department of Health is forming a new committee to get to the bottom of the problem.

State health officials hope to find the answers that have eluded them so far. They want to get people involved and include experts at the highest level. But, bringing the numbers under control could take a while.

Andrea Jackman is having a much better time with seven-month-old Olivia.

"She's acting like a normal baby," Jackman said. "She's starting to roll over all the time, and she's eating normal big-girl foods."

Action News first introduced you to this mother and daughter in February. Olivia was born with spina bifida, a neural tube defect. Another neural tube defect, anencephaly, is showing up in the region at an abnormally high rate.

"They're essentially born without a brain, and without a skull covering that area as well," Washington State Department of Health epidemiologist Mandy Stahre said.

Seven cases of anencephaly were reported in Yakima, Benton and Franklin Counties last year. There have been more than 30 since 2010. That rate is more than four times higher than the national average.

"It's disconcerting that it's continued to grow for four years, and why are we just now learning about all these cases?" Jackman said.

"We understand that women are concerned, and we definitely recommend that they talk to their healthcare providers," Stahre.

An investigation hoping to find a common cause was inconclusive. State health officials are focused on making sure pregnant women take folic acid every day and have a healthy diet.

Local moms-to-be don't consume as much as the rest of the state.

"Is this something that can be seen early on in a pregnancy?" KIMA asked.
"It's usually diagnosed about twelve weeks," Stahre said.

It's a big hurdle for medical professionals because the neural tube closes after three to four weeks. By the time anencephaly is detected, it's too late.

A new advisory committee will be part of a community outreach program hoping to educate and figure out ways to keep cases like this in check.

The committee will be made up of national experts on neural tube defects, members of the Centers for Disease Control, as well as local and state health officials.

The advisory committee will hold its first local meetings next month. Those dates and locations are not yet set.