No cause determined for high number of birth defects in region

ELLENSBURG, Wash. -- An abnormally high number of babies are being born in our area with severe birth defects, and health experts can't figure out why.

Investigators started looking into the so-called cluster of birth defects almost two years ago. We're talking about neural tube birth defects. These babies are born missing part of their brain or skull. There have been 27 cases across Yakima, Benton and Franklin counties in recent years.

Four-month-old Olivia is happy and healthy, but that wasn't always the case. Olivia was born with spina bifida. Her spinal cord was not formed properly.

"It was devastating," said mother Andrea. "I just didn't know what to do. As a mother, you don't, as a first time mother as it was, it was scary enough."

Andrea Jackman found out there might be a problem 19 weeks into her pregnancy. That's when a blood test showed her hormone levels were four times higher than normal. Her doctor gave her the worst-case scenario.

"He practically told me my daughter was going to be a vegetable," said Andrea. "She would never walk, she would probably have to be in a wheelchair and gave me the option to terminate. And, to be honest with you, I had considered it. Being a mother, you wouldn't want your child to have that horrible type of life."

But, Olivia beat the odds. Specialists in Seattle guided Andrea through the pregnancy and treated Olivia quickly.

"I came to the terms if she wasn't going to make it, it wasn't going to be up to me," said Andrea.

Olivia's case of spina bifida is one of 27 cases in the region involving a neural tube birth defect. It's an abnormally high number for the size of the population. Washington's Department of Health can't explain it with any common link. Researchers looked at the water they drink, their medical conditions and medication.

Olivia does struggle with some things. Andrea notices she doesn't have muscles in her feet to push. It's likely she'll need braces to walk. There's also a chance Olivia will be a slow learner. But right now, there's no signs of that.

"She seems really smart so far, but I'm Mom," said Andrea. "I could be a little biased."

There were three cases of spina bifida locally the last three years. The most common condition was anencephaly. There were 23 of these cases where the baby was born missing part of the brain or skull.

A common recommendation for pregnant women is to take folic acid to reduce birth defects. However, health officials did not find a difference between patients who took folic acid and those who did not in these cases. Another recommendation is to get your water tested every year if you get it from a private well.