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Standardizing the Genetic Screening of Newborns

Some simple, cheap tests can save a baby's life. So why don't all newborns get them?

America's pediatricians called today for national newborn screening standards to help change that. Medical correspondent Elizabeth Kaledin reports.

Of the 4 million babies born in this country every year, some will be automatically screened for a broad spectrum of genetic disorders while others will be tested for just a few. It all depends on the state.

It's a glaring public health inequity, according to a report out today from the American Academy of Pediatrics.

"Some babies … because of where they were born will suffer mental retardation and some will even die because of the newborn screening program in that area," says UCLA's Dr. Edward McCabe, co-chair of the Newborn Screening Task Force that published the report in the August 9 issue of Pediatrics.

James Lazarro died when he was just eight months old because he was born in Wisconsin, a state that did not screen for his rare metabolic disorder. Just a change in diet could have saved his life.

The screening tests, which involve a pinprick and a drop of blood, are inexpensive and could be widely available. Many disorders like James Lazarro's can be treated if caught early: cystic fibrosis, sickle cell anemia, and a broad range of metabolic problems.

But since using the tests is a state-by-state decision, doctors say it is too often influenced by politics and economics--and children suffer.

"It's time for there to be a setting of a national agenda for what should be a core screening program for every baby in this country," says McCabe.

The March of Dimes agrees, and urges federal government intervention.

"Given that the states haven't been able to do it themselves, it certainly looks like it's time for the government to step in," says Dr. Donald Mattison, medical director of the March of Dimes.

The consensus is, the sooner a national screening program is in place, the sooner every baby born here will have an equal shot at a healthy start.

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