Mayan refugees seek answers to why their babies have birth defects

October 15, 1996 Web posted at: 7:20 p.m. EDT

From Correspondent John Zarrella

PALM BEACH COUNTY, Florida (CNN) -- Daniel Vicente was born with most of his brain missing. He can neither see nor hear. In fact, his mother Angelina said she was told when he was born, 18 months ago, that he would die within days.

I have never seen a child in my life like my son. I believe that God gave life to a human being, that I should respect His will in giving me a son like this.

-- Angelina Vicente

In the last five years, social service advocates say, Mayan Indian refugees like Angelina -- who now number 10,000 in Palm Beach County -- have given birth to at least 19 children with serious birth defects.

"We never had this kind of children in Guatemala," said social worker Polly Gaspar. "We never have just partial brain, no brain, spina bifida."

Although the Mayan community believes it is in the midst of an "epidemic," health care workers aren't quite sure what is causing the abnormally high rate of birth defects.

Many of the Mayan refugees work in the vast Everglades Agriculture Area, picking vegetables. The women work in the fields, too, often until just days before giving birth.

Some officials suspect the birth defects are linked to genetics or poor nutrition. Other people, including some refugees, blame the chemicals workers are exposed to while in the fields.

County health officials are now conducting an investigation into the large number of birth defects. They say serious defects, like Daniel's, are usually caused by a combination of factors, and it's unlikely farm chemical exposure did the damage.

Moreover, health officials say, proper prenatal care could make all the difference, a strategy they will emphasize in the future. "If the women, during their childbearing period, take folic acid, that could really prevent" abnormalities in their infants, said Dr. Savita Kumar of the Palm Beach County Health Department.

"This is preventable, and I think that it is where we are going to go and focus our energy."

Dr. Kumar says most of the 19 cases she has seen are not true birth defects, but problems that might have been prevented by better diet and prenatal care.

But it won't be easy to convince Mayans refugees, who say children like Daniel are proof that something is seriously wrong.

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