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MSU college helps start public health initiative in Flint

January 24, 2016

In light of this, a new public health initiative has been launched between the Hurley Children’s Hospital and the MSU College of Human Medicine located in Flint. Spearheaded by MSU assistant professor in pediatrics Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, the initiative aims to study children who consumed Flint’s lead water during its “peak” period between April 2014 and October 2015 and how this will affect their physical and mental development.

“This is a recommitment to the future of Flint, specifically as a result of this disaster,” Hanna-Attisha, director of the pediatric residency program at Hurley, said.

The program consists of three arms. The first is assessment, continuing the research on the impact of the exposure. Second is monitoring, entailing a long-term neurodevelopmental follow-up with affected children, with the final component focused on intervention.

Hanna-Attisha made her findings on Flint’s water contamination widespread in late September at a press conference. The move was highly unorthodox, since researchers usually wait to have their findings undergo peer review before releasing it to the public.

“We had this professional, ethical, moral obligation to share what we had found,” she said.

Hanna-Attisha’s research helped put pressure on state and city officials to come together and work towards addressing Flint’s water pollution.

“As part of our Flint Pediatric Public Health Initiative, we have invited a representative from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services to be a part of the initiative as well as the director of the county health department in Genesee County,” Dean Sienko, MD, MS, associate dean for prevention and public health in the MSU College of Human Medicine, said.

Lead laden blood is a concern for any human being, as the heavy metal has no known health benefits. The heavy metal accumulates in bone, since the body thinks it’s calcium, and is released very slowly.

“This is a fairly unique situation where you have a community exposed to lead in the water and then what might that mean for these children in the short term and in the long term,” Sienko said.

Research on lead’s effects on children isn’t an entirely new research venture. The federal government issued regulations against lead paint in the 1970s after studies proved a direct correlation between living in lead painted homes and adolescent lead poisoning.

An issue for Hanna-Attisha and her research is that lead leached water is able to affect much younger children.

“Lead in water affects an even younger, more developmentally vulnerable population, so unborn children and babies on formula who are using tap water to mix their powdered formula,” she said.

Aside from being compelled to act as medical practitioners, many of the researchers on Hanna-Attisha’s team can empathize with what Flint residents are going through.

Allison Schnepp, who began her clinical residency at Hurley around the time Flint switched water sources back in April 2014, is one of those researchers.

“We all had noticed that our patients, or actually their parents, would come in with various complaints about the water saying that it smells funny or that my child’s experiencing this rash after using the water,” Schnepp said.

As a wife and mother of a one and a half year old, her child fits within the age range of the children most affected by Flint’s lead water.

“To think, as a parent, how angry I’d be if that was my child,” she said. “I can’t imagine how upset I would be if me or my child was drinking it.”

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