COPH birth defects researchers to host statewide meeting in January

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Preeminent birth defects researchers from the USF College of Public Health will welcome others from across the state and beyond when they host the third Florida Birth Defects Statewide Meeting on Thursday, Jan. 8, and Friday, Jan. 9, at the Doubletree Westshore Hotel in Tampa.

One of the event’s principal organizers is Dr. Russell Kirby, USF Distinguished Professor and Marrell Endowed Chair in the Department of Community and Family Health. The conference is an outgrowth of the Florida Birth Defects Registry, of which Kirby also is a driving force.

“The Florida Birth Defects Registry,” he explained, “is a public health surveillance program that is authorized by Florida state statute with the goal of identifying all children who are born with birth defects.”

The program has been in existence since the late 1990s and has data from 1998-2011, with data from 2012 soon to be finalized and added in, Kirby said.

“One of the things that we decided several years ago was that, since we had gotten to the point that we had amassed enough data that we have a substantial repository, we would host a statewide conference,” he said. “USF has contracts and purchase orders through the state health department to support the Birth Defects Registry, and part of our funding is being used to sponsor this conference.”

The conference will draw heavily from the registry’s formidable database, Kirby said.

“If you can imagine from 1998 on, with 200,000-plus babies per year, the population we have is enormous, with well over 2 million records and somewhere in the vicinity of 50,000 case reports in the database,” he said.  “We use these data to understand the prevalence of specific birth defects, to look at the contribution of birth defects to infant mortality, and to provide information to families about the long-term outcomes of their children.  They’re also used for risk-factor epidemiology to look at characteristics of personal reproductive health demographic and environmental factors that might be associated with birth defects, and they’re frequently used to investigate suspected clusters of birth defects that are reported by concerned citizens or identified by public health departments.”

Premmie baby and mom

This will be the group’s third statewide conference, Kirby said. Attendees must register because of space limitations, but registration is free. As of Dec. 2, he said, 47 had registered to attend, but there is room for more than twice that many.

The program has been organized with a focus on the registry itself, Kirby said, in terms of identifying specific new initiatives, analyzing data quality and accuracy, and more specifically, analyzing how the data have been used, a consideration with implications that reach well beyond the registry in its own right.

“Over the last few years, we’ve been able to participate in several national research projects,” he said, “including one that was published in the American Journal of Public Health this year. We’ll be highlighting some of those activities.”

Other foci of the conference will be on the newest advances in diagnosing birth defects, especially prenatal diagnostic techniques. Additionally, Kirby said, there will be a “major focus” on congenital heart defects, specifically the relation between obesity and heart defects.

“But in general, the idea is to have a holistic approach,” he said. “What is the Birth Defects Registry? What have we done with it from a research point of view? What are we doing with it from the standpoint of advancing knowledge that improves outcomes and assists families in accessing services?”

Kirby will be one of three speakers directly from COPH, along with Dr. Jennifer Marshall, Community and Family Health research associate, and doctoral candidate Jean Paul Tanner, MPH. Dr. Jason Salemi also will address the conference. Salemi is a professor in the Department of Community and Family Medicine at the Baylor College of Medicine who earned his MPH and PhD at COPH.

Other scheduled featured speakers include Dr. Cara Mai and Dr. Cynthia Cassell from the National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities at the Centers for Disease Control, and Dr. Jeffrey Jacobs, cardiovascular program director and surgical director of the heart transplantation program at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Heart Institute. Dr. Charles Lockwood, senior vice president for USF Health and dean of the Morsani College of Medicine, will deliver the welcome and opening remarks.

Anyone wishing to attend the conference or obtain more information is encouraged to visit the online website.

Story by David Brothers, College of Public Health.

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