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FOR RELEASE: February 20, 2002
CONTACT: Dick Gunn

Oklahoma Scores an “A” for Health Department’s Birth Defects Registry

Oklahoma is one of only eight states that received an “A” grade for its birth defects registry from the Trust for America’s Health, a Washington, DC-based advocacy group. The group released a report today - Birth Defects Tracking and Prevention: Too Many States Are Not Making the Grade - that gives a letter grade based on state efforts to monitor, research, and uncover possible causes of birth defects.

“We are please that our system for monitoring birth defects has received national acknowledgment,” said State Health Commissioner Leslie M. Beitsch, M.D. “Yet we recognize that more effort must be placed on the prevention of birth defects and the causes of birth defects. For example, we know that certain birth defects and related conditions are increasing; still we have too little information to reach any definite conclusions.”

Birth defects remain the number one cause of infant mortality in the United States, accounting for about 20 percent of all infant deaths each year. Every year in Oklahoma, about 1,800 babies are born with a birth defect. While many birth defects can be surgically treated, a child affected by a birth defect may need frequent and painful medical care, and suffer serious health and emotional burdens. In addition, medical treatment is a tremendous financial burden on families and society. For example, the lifetime expenses associated with 12 selected birth defects range from $140,000 to $700,000 per child.

Today, the causes of as many as 80 percent of birth defects are unknown. Risk factors that are known to be harmful to the developing baby include smoking, prescription medication, and alcohol use by pregnant women. Adequate intake of synthetic folic acid by women of childbearing age can reduce 50 to 70 percent of neural tube defects (spina bifida and anencephaly). Unfortunately, not enough is known about how exposure to toxic substances in water, air, food, and soil could potentially affect developing babies.

Kay Pearson, Oklahoma Birth Defects Registry coordinator for the Oklahoma State Department of Health, notes that the report points out that even the “A” states fall short in their abilities to determine if increases in certain birth defects are real or just changes in diagnosis over time. “Analyzing the effects of human exposure to environmental toxicants on birth defects is very difficult and beyond the scope of most registries,” she said.

The Trust for America’s Health (TFAH) report calls on all states to improve their birth defects registries, or create them where none exist. At the national level, TFAH recommends the creation of a nationwide health-tracking network to gather data about birth defects and other chronic diseases, as well as environmental factors that might be linked to them. Other recommendations include the establishment by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) of minimum national standards for birth defect registries; CDC funding for birth defects registries in every state; and federally funded pilot programs to link birth defects registries with data from environmental exposure databases. The full text of the report is available on the TFAH Web site at www.healthyamericans.org.


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