With the March of Dimes reporting that Ohio has earned an "F" for its failure to establish a birth defects monitoring system, Gov. Bob Taft and the state's legislature should be thinking long and hard about a budgetary decision that denied the $100,000 in start-up funds the program needed.
It is estimated that more than 6,000 of the 150,000 babies born each year in Ohio are born with birth defects. But without a tracking system, it is not only impossible to know the exact number, it is also difficult to track down potential common causes of some of the defects. For the sake of the state's most vulnerable citizens, Ohio should do better.
The March of Dimes, the nation's pre-eminent voluntary health organization committed to preventing birth defects and infant mortality, reports that birth defects are the leading cause of death during the first year of life in the United States, and babies that do survive with birth defects are more likely to have a lifelong physical or mental disability.
Prevention possible: Increasingly, researchers are able to pinpoint some of the causes of birth defects: some genetic, some environmental and some related to maternal health or lifestyle. When causes are found, then action can be taken to prevent the problems. The discovery, for example, that a folic acid deficiency was associated with neural tube defects led to the recommendation that pregnant women or those anticipating pregnancy increase their intake of folic acid. As a result, nearly 20 percent fewer babies are born with the crippling defect.
But the causes of two-thirds of birth defects remain unknown. A statewide registry can provide information that will bring medical researchers closer to finding why the defects occur and how they can be prevented.
"State surveillance programs are a key step in the search for causes of these birth defects. Recognizing this, the March of Dimes is working at both the state and federal levels to improve existing surveillance systems and create new programs where none exist," said Dr. Jennifer L. Howse, president of the March of Dimes.
But Ohio is one of nine states that has no tracking system. So Ohio parents who suffer the emotional agony of a child born with a life-threatening or crippling disease have no way of knowing why, no way of knowing how to prevent a similar affliction in any subsequent children they may have.
If the governor and legislature truly care about the health of Ohio's babies and children, they will find the funds for a birth defects registry. Continuing to use the excuse of a tight budget to justify the failure of state government to act appropriately on behalf of its citizens only shows the weakness of Ohio's leaders.