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4,000 Florida families in study

The University of Miami Medical School has been chosen by the National Institutes of Health as the Florida leader in a 25-year nationwide, pioneering study of children's health, following potential mothers from before they're pregnant to when their children reach 21.

The $54.6 million project, which will track 100,000 children nationwide, including 4,000 in Florida, will focus on birth defects, obesity, heart disease and autism. It will create a national databank of health information on children.

Dr. Steven Lipschultz, chairman of pediatrics at UM medical school and Florida principal investigator, says the research will be far more significant than the famous Framingham Heart Study that has followed the population of a Massachusetts town since 1948 and is seen as the basis for much of what is known about heart disease.

''That was just one Massachusetts town,'' Lipschultz said. ``This will cover the whole country. It's the largest NIH study ever to assess children's health.''

Lipschultz estimates the study eventually will create up to 400 medical health jobs in Florida and $400 million of medical spending in Miami-Dade County. In Florida, Miami-Dade, Hillsborough, Orange and Baker counties are among the 105 chosen nationwide for the study.

Over the next two years, UM researchers will recruit up to 12,000 families, then winnow them down to 4,000 infants to be followed until their 21st birthdays.

Mothers will get regular visits from nurses and doctors, more for study purposes than for clinical care, although some care will also be provided.

Congress mandated the project's framework in the Children's Health Act of 2000, which was enacted with the leadership of Donna Shalala, then secretary of Health and Human Services, now president of the University of Miami. Other universities involved are Johns Hopkins University, Baylor College of Medicine, Michigan State University, Northwestern University, Tulane, UCLA and Vanderbilt.

The studies will follow women from preconception through pregnancy, sampling the water they drink, the air they breathe, soils, genetics.

Some of the key areas to be studied:

• Birth defects: Birth defects affect one in every 33 babies born in the United States each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They include heart defects, brain defects and spinal problems such as spina bifida. Birth defects account for more than 20 percent of infant deaths.

• Obesity: Studies by the Florida Governor's Task Force on Obesity say 10 percent of Florida high school students and 11.5 percent of middle school students are overweight. They say 57.4 percent of Florida adults were overweight or obese, a 63 percent increase since 1986. Early blame was placed on lack of physical activity and poor eating habits.

• Heart disease: Reports by the Florida Department of Health say 39.7 percent of Florida residents said they had high cholesterol in 2005, up from 31 percent in 2001. The report said 26.9 percent engage in no regular physical activity. And two-thirds of middle school students watched TV or sat at a computer screen for more than three hours a day.

• Autism: The CDC estimates that 1 in 150 8-year-old U.S. children has an autism spectrum disorder (ASD), making up about 560,000 individuals from birth to 21. The number is up from previous decades, possibly because a broader definition of ASD has come into use. Some parents believe, despite disagreement from many doctors, that autism might be associated with childhood vaccinations.

The CDC says it does not believe there is a connection. But at a March news conference, CDC Director Dr. Julie Gerberding said: ``The weight of the evidence indicates that vaccines are not associated with autism. But CDC knows that some parents may still have concerns about this issue . . . so we will continue to study the role of vaccines.''

Says Lipschultz: ``There's no substitute for data.''