OC one of first to begin national children’s study

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Workers are fanning out over more than a dozen neighborhoods in Orange County to try to find women to participate in the National Children’s Study. It’s the largest and most comprehensive study of children’s development and health in the United States. Orange County is one of a handful of areas that’s going first to work out the kinks. KPCC’s Susan Valot got an update on the program at the Garden Grove Boys and Girls Clubs.

Susan Valot: In Orange County, one in four kids develops asthma. More children today are diagnosed as autistic. And although a look at a playground will tell you kids are fatter, it doesn’t tell you why some of kids end up with Type 2 diabetes, and some don’t. Doctors want to know the whys about that, and other childhood health problems.

The federally-funded National Children’s Study will track as many as 100,000 children nationwide from birth or pre-birth to the age of 21. Dr. Dean Baker is the director of the National Children’s Study in Orange County.

Dean Baker: We know that the more children eat and the less they exercise, they become obese, OK. And so some things, probably – you know, we more need to figure out why in some communities, children exercise more and eat less and others don’t. We kind of know some of the risk factors, but we don’t know why there’s such variation within the population. And we’re going to have to learn more about that.

Valot: One thing they’ll look at is how healthy kids are in neighborhoods with sidewalks, which promote walking, compared to places without. Baker says about a week ago, researchers in Orange County started home visits with the first pregnant women who are part of the study.

Baker: And while we’re in the home, we’ll collect samples of dust from the carpet, from vacuuming. And, like, if they have a linoleum floor, hardwood floor, there’ll be a wipe sample of the floor. There’s a home inspection to see, do they have, you know, a gas furnace versus electric heat? Are there any signs of moisture damage or mold? Things like that.

Valot: The specimens are frozen, so researchers will be able to come back to them in a decade if they come up with new theories about childhood health. Dr. Dean Baker says this study could be to children’s health issues what the Framingham Heart Study was to heart disease.

Baker says in that study, researchers tracked several thousand people in the town of Framingham, near Boston. The study started in the late 1940s and still has participants today.

Baker: What we know about heart disease, basic things like high blood pressure or hypertension as a risk factor, high cholesterol, were things that really weren’t known several decades ago and really came out of doing a study like that.

Valot: Dr. Baker says the $3 billion in federal money over 30 years could end up saving a lot more money as we learn how to prevent childhood diseases. For now, the researchers are drumming up participants by going door-to-door in Garden Grove, Anaheim, Fullerton, Laguna Beach, and other Orange County neighborhoods.

Bonnie Baeza is one of those door knockers. She calls herself a “foot soldier.” She spends a couple of minutes at each house, collecting information on an electronic tablet. Baeza says if she comes across a woman between the ages of 18 and 44 who plans to have kids within five years...

Bonnie Baeza: I then turn the tablet over to her and in a quiet, private area, she would be able to answer those questions directly on the computer, using a stylus pen and touching the screen. And it’s very comprehensive. It’s very user friendly.

Valot: Baeza says she’s hit everything from gated communities to trailer parks. People receive letters in the mail and notes on their doors about the program before someone knocks on their door, so it’s not a total surprise.

Mary Coggins is the program’s outreach coordinator in Orange County. She’s been working with local organizations and police departments to get the word out.

Mary Coggins: We want to front-load the communities and let you know that we’re coming, you know, so when the door knock happens, in theory, they know that we’re coming. “Oh, that National Children’s Study! I heard about you on KPCC or I saw a poster about you at the library.”

Valot: In all, organizers plan to enroll more than 1,200 women in Orange County over the next five years for the National Children’s Study. Los Angeles County plans to begin neighborhood recruiting within a couple of years, followed by San Bernardino County. Researchers hope they’ll begin coming out with initial results of the study within the next few years.