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All babies treated equal

February 18, 2009 |  9:44 am

InfantHere's something right with the U.S. healthcare system. Today, the March of Dimes is announcing that all 50 states and the District of Columbia now require that newborns be screened for a range of life-threatening medical conditions. These are genetic, functional or metabolic disorders that cause serious disability, mental retardation or death if they are not detected shortly after birth. But if detected and treated promptly, children with these conditions can have normal, healthy lives.

Up until now, each state has had a different policy on which conditions it would screen for. (The screening is the simple blood test all infants receive in the hospital after birth.) Some states screened for four treatable conditions, others for 29. The fact that a baby could be born in West Virginia and suffer a lifetime of poor health and disability while that same baby, born in Ohio, would lead a healthy life, has been a sad and frustrating problem in this country for more than two decades. Due to the efforts of the March of Dimes and the American College of Medical Genetics, however, all states now require screening for 21 conditions, and many states screen for 29. As recently as 2005, only 38% of infants were born in states that required screening for 21 or more conditions.

There is still some variability between states (see map below), and the March of Dimes says it will continue to promote consistent guidelines nationwide to eliminate the remaining discrepancies. Moreover, funding is still needed to ensure that babies, once identified as having one of these serious conditions, receive the medical care necessary to thrive. Many of the conditions require only a special diet or medication to allow for normal development.

While these conditions are generally rare, screening and treating even a single case can prevent a state thousands of dollars in special educational and healthcare services that child would require if untreated. Not to mention the blessing that newborn screening provides families. In 1988, my first-born child was diagnosed with one of these disastrous conditions that cause irreversible mental and physical retardation if not detected and treated within the first 12 weeks of life. In those days, many states had no newborn screening programs. My child was born in California and was diagnosed when she was 7 days old. Had she been born in Florida, where we had lived the year before my pregnancy, she would not have been screened. I don't know what would have happened to her. But I'm pretty sure she wouldn't be where she is now: At a top university studying biochemistry. I have the March of Dimes, the state of California and many others to thank for that.

— Shari Roan

Photo credit: Clarence Williams / Los Angeles Times