Federal grant will increase testing of Oklahoma newborns

Tuesday, September 28th 2004, 5:58 am
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ A federal grant obtained by the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center will quadruple the number of genetic and metabolic tests given to 48,000 newborns each year.

Dr. John Mulvihill, a genetics' specialist at OU, will coordinate the new ``Heartland Genetics and Newborn Screening Collaborative'' involving eight states. Aside from Oklahoma, the group includes Arkansas, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota and South Dakota.

Some states already are heeding nationwide pressures to increase newborn screening. Missouri is set to move from five diseases to 25 early next year. Last month, Ohio began requiring screening for 30 diseases, up from 13.

Oklahoma now has four tests given right after birth and is adding three more tests in 2005. But many health officials believe seven tests are not enough.

The three-year, $1.1 million federal grant obtained by OU is designed to increase the number of tests to 30.

Genetic deficiencies can cause problems that include brain damage, mental retardation, blindness, deafness and death. Early treatment can prevent many complications.

Mulvihill's peers in most other states agree that a minimum of 30 genetic and metabolic tests are needed, and it's only a matter of time before all states have a common standard.

``We're coming around the corner,'' Mulvihill said.

The OU physician is working closely with the state Health Department to address the ``huge challenge'' of making sure both urban and rural parents have access to screening tests for their newborns.

``We share a vision that every baby should be adequately screened,'' said Pam King, state Health Department genetics' coordinator.

The agency soon is getting two new machines that use ``tandem mass spectrometry'' to test for genetic abnormalities that include cystic fibrosis, congenital adrenal hyperplasia and dehydrogenase deficiency.

With new testing capabilities fully in place during 2005, King said, the Health Department then will be able to test for those 30 serious, sometimes life-threatening genetic diseases.

A minimum of 30 newborn tests are recommended by the March of Dimes.

``This testing is complex, but we have gained the expertise in the state to meet this new challenge,'' King said.

Currently in Oklahoma, newborns are screened for sickle cell anemia, phenylketonuria, hypothyroidism and galactosemia.

In all, King said, about 60 Oklahoma babies per year are found to have serious genetic disorders. The cost of institutionalizing one severely affected child can be as high as $1.2 million over 10 years, she said.