THE Northern Rivers may be a hot-spot for an horrific and rare birth defect which has babies born with their intestinal contents freely protruding through the abdominal wall.
As many as four babies within close proximity have been diagnosed with the condition, gastroschisis, since 2009.
Now mothers of babies affected by the disorder are calling on health authorities to investigate what may prove to be a cluster of cases.
Gastroschisis affects about one baby in every 5000 to 10,000 live births.
To put these figures in perspective, 1406 babies were born at the Lismore Base Hospital, Ballina District Hospital and Casino Mem-orial Hospital during the 2009/10 financial year.
Several studies conducted over the past 20 years show gastroschisis is increasing worldwide. In Queensland it has increased by 500 per cent over the past 20 years.
However, health authorities have been unable to determine its cause.
Jacqui McSkimming, 28, of Barkers Vale, discovered her son Olive had the defect when she was 35 weeks pregnant.
Just days after giving birth to Olive in June last year – by emergency caesarean after being airlifted from Lismore Base Hospital to the Mater Mothers' Hospital in Brisbane – Ms McSkimming and her partner Matt Ostila were put in touch with Mountain Top mother Elowyn Paitson, 32, who also had a child with the condition.
Her daughter, Obelia, was born with a severe case of gastroschisis in June 2008. She was living in Lismore at the time.
Ms McSkimming then learned of another baby living less then 10km from her born with the same condition after reading a story in The Northern Star.
The Stoney Chute baby, Indi Black, was featured in a story in the newspaper as the first Northern Rivers baby born in 2010.
The Northern Star has been told of, but was unable to confirm, another recent diagnosis of the condition in the Nimbin area.
Ms McSkimming said she was alarmed by an American study which linked gastroschisis to the agricultural chemical atrazine.
The study has been dismissed by the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority, the body which authorises the chemical's use, as containing a ‘number of weaknesses'.
“It does not require any further considerations,” APVMA spokesperson Dr Simon Cubit said.
“Because it does not contain substantial evidence.”
Bangalow-based National Toxics Network co-ordinator Jo Immig said there were several studies which had found a link bet-ween the incidence of gastroschisis and pesticides and it warranted further investigations.
“Health authorities have a duty of care to investigate any regional cluster of the birth defect gastroschisis, as well as its causes,” Ms Immig said.
Pediatrician Dr Tim Donovan from the Royal Brisbane and Women's Hospital, where Northern Rivers babies with the defect are often sent for treatment, said the increase in the number of cases of the condition was ‘puzzling and worrying', but there was no clear evidence about its cause.
It generally occurred in young mothers during their first pregnancy and its prevalence was also increasing in Scotland, Hawaii, America and Japan, he said.
Ms McSkimming is interested in hearing from other parents of children with gastroschisis.
She can be contacted through The Northern Star.