Neural Tube Defects

There has been a lot in the news in the past year about birth defects in the Yakima Valley – specifically, neural tube defects. Neural tube defects are relatively common birth defects (about 1/1000) that range in severity. In very severe cases, the skull does not close, resulting in anencephaly, which is always fatal. Spina bifida results if the spine does not close, which also ranges from less severe to more severe.

Susie Ball, Memorial’s genetic counselor, appeared on KIT 1280 on Tuesday, Sept. 30, 2014, to talk about these birth defects, as well as steps moms-to-be can take to try to prevent them.

What causes neural tube defects?

Children affected by neural tube defects have received some genes from each parent. Then, there has been some triggering exposure during the pregnancy. We don’t know what all the triggers are, although low folic acid is one. Usually there is not a family history of the condition. It can happen to anyone.

There seems to be a cluster of birth defects in the Yakima Valley.

Certain birth defects often occur in “clusters,” just by chance, and in these cases, there is not enough evidence to show that that there is a larger problem. We have to take a long view, over many years, to determine if there is a problem.

The Department of Health is investigating to determine if there is a preventable cause. One thing that has come out of the study is that several of the women have had pregnancies with other identified issues (other birth defects in the baby, other genetic causes suspected).

There is no one identified cause for these birth defects about which we can warn residents.

Are there things women can do to prevent them?

Low folic acid seems to be a triggering event in some women who have affected babies. The March of Dimes and health care providers have been advocating pre-conceptional use of folic acid for many years. That means all women of child-bearing age should be taking folic acid.

If a woman takes 0.4 mg of folic acid daily – basically, a daily vitamin with folic acid – prior to pregnancy and through early pregnancy, she will cut her chances of having a child with a neural tube defect by about half.


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