SOUND OFF: Give babies a healthy start

Babies on Whidbey Island need your help. The March of Dimes hopes you’ll take a moment to contact government officials to support a series of tests for newborns that can detect diseases that cause mental retardation, physical abnormalities or even death. The tests can mean the difference between a healthy life or a severe disability for a baby.

The issue

While nearly all babies born in the United State undergo newborn screening for genetic birth defects, the number and quality of the tests very from state to state. The March of Dimes recommends that every baby born in the United States receive, at a minimum, the same core group of nine screening tests for physical and mental disorders plus a hearing test. Currently, Washington requires testing for only four disorders. Although many hospitals statewide screen newborns for hearing loss, it is not a requirement.

Approximately 1,000 babies are born each year in Island County, some of them with serious birth defects that could have been diagnosed (and subsequently treated) if they’d been given newborn screening tests not yet required by the state.

The four tests currently required by Washington state screen newborns for diseases that can cause brain damage, retardation, slowed physical growth and other maladies. The five additional tests recommended by March of Dimes detect diseases that can result in blindness, infections, hearing loss, respiratory failure, cardiac arrest and stroke. March of Dimes also supports mandatory newborn hearing tests.

The costs of the tests are much less than that of treating the diseases after they’ve developed. Of course, the benefits of protecting a baby from those life-threatening diseases far outweigh the costs of the tests that screen for them.

What you can do

An advisory committee (composed of parents, community groups and healthcare professionals) will make recommendations to the Washington State Board of Health in late spring about increasing the number of required tests for newborns. You can help by writing letters to the Board of Health and Governor Locke to express your feelings about expanding the number from four to nine. Eventually, the state legislature will decide the issue.

Whidbey Island residents have been very supportive of the March of Dimes in its mission to improve the health of babies by preventing birth defects and infant mortality. (Latest example: they were among more than 8,000 walkers and volunteers in Western Washington who took part in the annual WalkAmerica fundraiser on April 13.) We hope you’ll take a moment to help provide a voice for a group of people—newborn babies—who truly can’t speak up for themselves.

Joseph Zavaglia, senior vice president at Bank of America, is chair of the March of Dimes State Executive Committee, and has been a March of Dimes volunteer for 11 years.

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