Babies born in France without arms: Another case found

Another baby has been confirmed as being born without arms in the Ain department, in a medical mystery that is still being investigated by health authorities in France.

31 October 2018
By Connexion journalist

The baby is the eighth child identified to have been born either without arms, hands, or fingers, and comes from one of the areas in question - a 17 km square region of the Ain, north-west of Lyon.

The defect is known medically as transverse upper limb agenesis (agénésies transverses du membre supérieur (ATMS) in French), meaning a failure of an organ to develop during embryonic growth.

All eight babies to be identified with the problem so far were born between 2009 and 2014, and lived within kilometres of each other in the affected zone, according to local register, le Registre des Malformations Congénitales en Rhône-Alpes (Remera).

According to Remera, the number of babies affected is 50 times higher than doctors would usually expect, in such a small geographical area, leading them to suspect an external, environmental problem as the cause.

This eighth child was identified and confirmed following a tip-off given to health agency Santé Publique France (SpF) by Remera, after his mother called to double-check that her son had been accounted for.

The baby had been born in 2012, but it emerged that he had not - in fact - been counted as part of the wider cases due to a change in administrative procedure at his hospital of birth at the time.

The baby was born without fingers, his mother said, with doctors confirming that his condition was the result of the same ATMS issue as suffered by the other babies.

The new case has resurfaced the debate between agencies about the probable cause of the issue.

This month (October 4), SpF published a report suggesting that the situation was not “statistically abnormal”, and that the cases in the Ain were genuine coincidences. It said no common cause could be found.

However, three biostatisticians - including the former director of cancer research centre Le Centre International de Recherche sur le Cancer (CIRC) - told Le Monde newspaper that they did not accept the report.

They particularly took issue with the fact that the SpF study appeared “not to have taken into proper account” just how geographically close the cases were when making its analysis and drawing conclusions.

Health minister Agnès Buzyn is continuing to investigate other potential causes, working with SpF and health agency l’Agence Nationale de Sécurité Sanitaire de l’Alimentation, de l’Environnement et du Travail (Anses).

A statement from her office said: “With the minister for the environment, we are working with SpF and Anses, asking that they investigate possible environmental causes, not only to discover a precise cause - which is very complex - but also to define a precise perimetre for research [on the issue].”

The case has been complicated by the fact that agency Remera had been in the process of winding down its activities and letting staff go, after funding dried up from research institute l’Institut National de la Santé et de la Recherche Médicale (Inserm) and the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region.

The cutting off of funding for the agency has itself been seen as controversial in the wake of the ATMS scandal.

Remera - which operates across Rhône, Loire, Isère et Ain, current funding problems notwithstanding - registers all birth defects and disfigurements, and investigates any potential causes.

This may include checking any medicines taken by the mother during the pregnancy; checking her lifestyle and environment; and noticing the presence of any external forces, such as living near an incinerator, a factory, or even a large-scale farm.

Now, the minister for health is also working to maintain funding and staff for the agency, pending this latest investigation.

Since the eighth baby has been identified - to great media attention - more cases from across France are said to have been reported to Remera.

Emmanuelle Amar, Remera director, said: “From now on, we will have a national online platform put in place, allowing people to report cases of ATMS.”

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