2007.12.02 – National health study of children advances


National health study of children advances
In 105 areas, 2 locally, researchers will follow their lives for years.

By Chris Parker
Of The Morning Call
December 2, 2007

The largest national study of how genetics and the environment affect children’s health is finally set to move forward in two area counties after a year’s delay caused by a lag in federal funding.

The $3.2 billion National Children’s Study, which will follow 100,000 children in 105 areas across the country from conception — or before — to age 21, will begin in Montgomery County in November 2008 and in Schuylkill County in July 2009 , The Children’s Health Act of 2000 authorized the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and a consortium of federal agencies to conduct the study.

But governmental wheels turn slowly.

The money was there for the planning and coordination, but not for the enrollment, study director Dr. Peter Scheidt said.

Congress appropriated the money this year.

“Had they done it in 2006, we would have been able to start enrollment in Montgomery County earlier than 2008,” Scheidt said. Some work will begin this year, including preparing for recruitment, hiring and training staff, determining community needs and setting up community advisory boards.

Schuylkill, Montgomery, Westmoreland and Philadelphia counties in Pennsylvania are among the 105 locations that will recruit participants. Each site will have a goal of enrolling at least 250 newborns each year for four or five years.

Physicians in the study will visit mothers during pregnancy, collect specimens and information during delivery and follow-up with visits at 6 and 12 months of age, then every three years after.

The study is the largest ever to look at children’s health in this country, said Schwarz, who is among the study’s lead physicians.

“People are born with certain genes, but we don’t know what turns them on or off,” Schwarz said. “The study will look at what happens before birth and sometimes even before conception, that influences how genes are turned on or off.”

It will also examine environmental influences – such as air and water pollution – and other factors, including what children eat, how they are cared for and the safety of their neighborhoods, National Institutes of Health officials say.

Scientists will share what they find with children’s families.

“Families and children who participate in the \[study\] will directly contribute to the health and well-being of not only their own children, but future generations of children as well,” Duane Alexander, director of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, has said.

NIH officials say the study locations are geographically distributed and demographically varied. By including families from different backgrounds and family structures, the study can better investigate issues of interest to many communities, NIH officials say.

NIH has selected “study centers” to lead the recruitment and enrollment efforts. Among them are the Montgomery County Department of Health and the Pottsville Hospital and Warne Clinic in Schuylkill County.

“We’re excited about it. Most definitely,” said Mike Peckman, spokesman for Pottsville Hospital, which is the only facility in the county that delivers babies.

Barbara O’Malley, project director for the Montgomery County Health Department, said she is thrilled her county is among those chosen.

“This is a vital study in determining the effects of environment on children’s health,” O’Malley said. “From the public health perspective, we see the trends in the increasing childhood obesity, asthma, autism and a variety of other children’s issues. We need to know what role does the environment have on that?”

The study will establish a gold mine of information for researchers.

“Many years from now, people may be coming back to this database,” O’Malley said.