WASHINGTON – Maryland’s system of tracking birth defects “is at the bottom rung of acceptable,” according to a report Wednesday by a nonprofit health advocacy group that ranked the states.
The report by the Trust for America’s Health said most states are doing an inadequate job of collecting information on birth defects, information that could be used by health officials to target causes and prevent future defects.
Maryland was one of 10 states to get a grade of C in the report, titled “Birth Defects Tracking and Prevention: Too Many States are Not Making the Grade.” It gave more than half the states grades of C or lower.
“I’m not saying Maryland has a bad system,” said Paul Locke, principal investigator for the report. “They had a system right in the middle of all the systems we graded. C was right in the middle.”
Locke said the main problem with Maryland’s Birth Defects Reporting and Information System is that it only covers 12 “sentinel” birth defects chosen by the World Health Organization, and not the 70 birth defects it could be tracking.
He also said that while some states send workers out to collect birth defect information, Maryland has a “passive” system under which it waits for people to report.
“Maryland is at the bottom rung of acceptable,” Locke said. “They wait for the data to come to them.”
Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene spokesman J.B. Hanson said he had not seen the report Wednesday and did not know enough about the state’s birth defects program to comment.
The Maryland Birth Defects Reporting and Information System was established by state law in 1982 and has been collecting data on babies born with any of the 12 common birth defects since Sept. 1, 1983. According to its website, the system “requires the reporting of cases diagnosed or suspected at birth and applies to births within the State of Maryland. The responsibility for reporting lies with the institution in which the infant is born.”
Locke praised Maryland for covering all in-state births, but said the program would be stronger if it covered all resident births, since some Maryland residents have their babies in other states or in Washington, D.C.
Maryland also needs to cover a longer age range, Locke said. The state only collects data on defects detected from birth to 1 month, but he noted that some heart defects are often not noticed until a baby begins to move around.
The trust said it released the report because, while birth defects are the leading cause of infant mortality in the United States, more than 80 percent of the causes of birth defects remain unknown.
Better state monitoring programs would provide basic information that could help identify trends and combine those with studies in genetics, molecular biology and the environment to find the causes of birth defects and ways to prevent them.
While infant deaths are sad, birth defects also affect the lives of infants and parents, emotionally, socially and financially. Lifetime medical expenses of a child with birth defects could amount up to $700,000.
The trust did not say how many Maryland infants are born with defects every year, but that the state was about average nationally. Across the country, one of every 28 infants is born with a birth defect, said Jennifer Howse, president of the March of Dimes. In Maryland, about 72,000 babies are born each year.