BIRTH DEFECTS: States Need Better Tracking Systems
Despite numerous advances in prenatal care, birth defects remain the number one killer of infants. Doctors and researchers are still unable to identify the causes of 80% of birth defects, blaming the drought in knowledge on the failure of states to track ailments and aggressively monitor them. Jennifer Howse, president of the March of Dimes, said, "We [also] need more clinical trials, and we need more epidemiological research ... to show where in the country birth defects are occurring, what kinds are occurring and what the patterns are." Reinforcing researchers' concerns is a recent study by the Pew Environmental Health Commission, which found that only eight states have "competent tracking programs in which health officials seek out information about birth defects, track the infants' health for several years, [and] then analyze their findings." With so few monitoring systems, Lynn Goldman, lead researcher of the study, noted that some 59 million Americans live in areas where they are unable to uncover the cause of existing birth defects. Although the Pew study attacks state health agencies, the agencies "are putting up no argument." George Hardy, executive director of the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials, said, "As a nation, we have become complacent in our understanding and support for this vital societal need. The Pew report serves as a wake up call for us all." The association and Pew Commission recognize the need for tracking systems, but say states lack needed funds to begin or upgrade existing programs. Thus, each group is urging Congress to authorize full funding under the 1998 Birth Defects Prevention Act. The law earmarks $40 million a year for tracking, education and research, but actual appropriations have totaled less than one-third of that amount. Lowell Weicker, head of the Pew Commission, said without the funds, public health officials "are working in the dark" (Mathis, USA Today, 4/12).This is part of the California Healthline Daily Edition, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.