Medical mystery in Central Wash. baffles experts

Medical mystery in Central Wash. baffles experts »Play Video
Jocelyn Robles is pregnant with a baby that she knows will die within minutes after it is born, due to a birth defect that is killing newborns in Central Washington.
YAKIMA, Wash. - Jocelyn Robles, due Oct. 31, knows her baby will die after a few breaths. She wipes her tears away.

“I’d rather go through with it and cherish whatever time I have,” said the Yakima woman whose unborn baby has anencephaly, a fatal disease. “Even if it’s an hour, a few minutes. Anything is better than nothing. And I’m going to see my baby, at least for a little bit.”

Robles was at a public hearing in Sunnyside on Tuesday night held by state Health Department experts examining a spike in anencephaly, a medical mystery near Yakima being confirmed by new cases, prompting more questions than answers.

State health officials conceded at the meeting they do not know what’s causing the ongoing and alarming spike in anencephaly, in which the spinal nerves in a fetus form outside the neck.

Anencephaly has killed 23 unborn and newborn children in Benton, Yakima and Franklin Counties since 2009, says the Washington Department of Health. That’s four times the national rate.

Lots of people in this part of Central Washington want to know whether there is something specifically causing this spike. Is there something in the environment? Is there something in the food eaten by the mothers? Is it pesticides? Or radiation from Hanford?

So public health experts examined the medical records of the 23 cases for risk factors, including source of water, obesity, location, occupation of both mother and father, history of folic acid and vitamin supplements, and more. They compared the anencephaly mothers with each other and with concurrent, healthy pregnancies and found no pattern. They even examined the Hanford theory but concluded the wind and water – the only means by which triggering radiation could reach the study area – was going in the opposite direction.

There was no smoking gun for this audience of medical providers, environmentalists, government workers, even a couple that lost a child to anencephaly 37 years ago.

“Certainly science cannot explain every woman that has a baby with a neural tube defect,” said State Epidemiologist Juliet VanEenwyk. "Not at all. It’s sad.”

She said public health experts find no cause in most clusters.

Disease clusters are random by definition and may have no cause whatsoever. Imagine 100 pennies representing 100 anencephaly cases are dropped randomly onto a table They form random clusters.

Experts do know that taking folic acid before pregnancy can lower the risk of anencephaly and urge women of child bearing age to take it. Waiting until pregnant is too late because anencephaly is triggered by the fourth week of pregnancy, well before most women know they’re pregnant. Latin women are known to take folic acid much less than other populations.

A state advisory committee has been formed to monitor this cluster for another year. The committee chairperson said the committee will examine nitrates in the Yakima Valley drinking water, a longstanding concern for many. Studies have linked nitrates to anencephaly, says VanEenwyk.

Robles peppered health officials with questions hoping to learn more than what she’s gleaned from the Internet. She said she and her boyfriend don’t blame themselves because they know that even science has not unlocked a clear cause for anencephaly.

She said it is "very frustrating" not to have a definitive scientific answer.

“I wouldn’t want someone to go through and have a baby and go through that. It’s just hard.”