Babies born without hands: 'Clusters' of deformity seen in coast areas

A GOVERNMENT investigation into the incidence of apparent clusters of babies born without hands in coastal regions was urged yesterday by a Labour MP.

Peter Mandelson, MP for Hartlepool, one of the areas where birth defects have been identified, called on Virginia Bottomley, Secretary of State for Health, to launch a full inquiry.

Mr Mandelson yesterday tabled a series of parliamentary questions to Mrs Bottomley, following reports of births of five children with missing or deformed hands in the Cleveland town.

Further reports have so far identified three cases in Peterlee, Co Durham, between June 1990 and November 1992; three between September 1991 and June 1993 in Irvine, Ayrshire; four in Ryde, Isle of Wight, between February 1989 and May 1990; and six in Irish coastal regions.

Some doctors suspect that marine pollutants, such as sewage or industrial chemicals, could be responsible. Others believe the defects could have been caused by viral infection. But the numbers of reported cases are small enough for the disabilities to have arisen by chance.

Firm conclusions cannot be made until it is known how many children are affected, and where.

Mr Mandelson said: 'Any problem or deformity at birth is disturbing but these clusters of defects alarm me and must be thoroughly investigated.

'So far, local health authorities have responded to public concern but the Government has not acted. An explanation of this pattern of defects must be established so that action can be taken before further tragedy occurs.'

The Commons questions ask what information is available to Mrs Bottomley about environmental or other causes which might explain the births, and what resources have been made available to health authorities and the Medical Research Council for their investigations.

Dr Donald Campbell, a Glasgow epidemiologist, has been asked by the Ayrshire and Arran Health Board to report on the births of at least eight affected children between 1991 and 1993.

The Medical Research Council is to investigate the Isle of Wight cases and several more in Hampshire.