They want to know if similar clusters are occurring elsewhere and if the condition, known as cranio- synostosis, is becoming more common. A fifth of the Yorkshire cases are thought to be genetic in origin, but a link with pesticides and pollution is also under investigation. Lead contamination has been suggested by some researchers. In Britain there are usually less than 20 cases a year, but 22 babies born over the past 30 months in a small area between York and Selby in North Yorkshire, have been diagnosed with the deformity. Two of the babies have died, one from the condition and the other from complications after corrective surgery.
Dr Jonathan Fear, a consultant in public health medicine at the North Yorkshire Health Authority said last night: 'You do get these things occurring by chance but it is a rare condition and it is a little odd to have so many in one place.'
The authority was alerted to the problem after 17 of the babies were seen by doctors at York District Hospital in a short period; another four were referred to plastic surgeons at St James Hospital, Leeds. Dr Fear and a colleague wrote to The Lancet medical journal last month describing the cluster.
Cranio-synostosis occurs when two or more bones in the skull fuse too early. There are six bones in the skull which 'float' on the brain and expand with it, eventually fusing together. The deformity depends on which bones fuse prematurely. In most cases the problem is largely cosmetic, although in some babies it can be life-threatening.
Jane Durham, 29, from Barlby, has a son Paul who was born with the condition. Mrs Durham, a former nurse, who is exepecting another child in January, said: 'Paul's head was round when he was born and then within a week it began to change shape . . . At first we blamed the water which is very bad in this area but no one will give us a reason . . . hopefully they'll have discovered the cause before our next baby is due. It is very worrying.'