Tri-Cities: Hotbed for neural tube defects

Tri-Cities: Hotbed for neural tube defects »Play Video
KENNEWICK, Wash. -- Serious and sometimes fatal birth defects are much more prevalent right here than anywhere else in the country. Benton, Franklin and Yakima Counties are being hit the hardest by neural tube defects, from spina bifida to anencephaly.

It might be a small group, but they're certainly not quiet - especially Nikki and Craig Sheldon.

"Our son was born in February with spina bifida,” said Nikki Sheldon. “We had no idea.”

No idea and no reason to think they could become part of this statistic.

“When we went through it, the doctors were stunned,” said Nikki. “They didn't know all this was going on. The doctors had no clue that there was so many high cases in our area. So why is there no communication?"

That's the hope behind Wednesday night’s meeting: to begin the conversation, because the Health Department doesn't know why our area has become a hotbed for neural tube defects.

“We've hit a wall,” said Juliet VanEenwyk, a state epidemiologist. “Our first look, we didn't find something, we didn't find a smoking gun we were hoping to."

Public health experts examined medical records for risk factors like source of water, obesity, location, occupation, folic acid and vitamins. After their primary investigation, they ruled them all out.

“It's scary that, although a lot of the questions were answered today and I did feel like for the most part we were heard, it's scary that the cause of this is such a mystery," said Candelaria Murillo.

Candelaria is still considering having more kids - or at least she was. She says the high rate of anencephaly in our area has her second-guessing the decision.

The rate of babies being born without a brain in our part of the state is eight times the national average - 23 cases in just three years.

“Figure out what's going on and what people are doing to get control of the situation," said Nikki Sheldon.

The health department is taking all the suggestions and comments collected over the past two days and giving them to an advisory committee.

“There’s still a lot we can do to try to prevent these in the absence of finding the smoking gun," said VanEewnyk.

Candelaria is proving to be the prime example.

"I am going to go back and educate my community, my friends and my family," she said.

The health department says these birth defects aren't like a virus. They don’t expect next year's numbers to skyrocket. In fact, they said, this could just be a random pocket, and that's what they're hoping for.

Editor's Note: When this story originally aired, the name of Dr. Juliet VanEenwyk was misspelled. We apologize for the error.