Second group of skull deformity babies found: Five children from the same area discovered to have rare condition. Liz Hunt reports

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The Independent Online
A SECOND cluster of babies has been born with a rare skull deformity, doctors at Charing Cross Hospital in London disclosed yesterday. It follows details of 22 babies with a related condition born in North Yorkshire in a 30-month period.

Five babies with a form of cranio- synostosis have been seen by the Charing Cross doctors in 15 months. All lived within 50 miles of Croydon, south London. There is also an unconfirmed report of three cases in north London.

Norman Waterhouse, a cranio-facial surgeon at Charing Cross, said the cases were an 'astonishing occurrence', which had baffled doctors. 'It does seem quite amazing to me - not that I've seen five or six children because they are referred here from all over - but that I've seen five from this small area,' he said.

There was no explanation for the cluster and it could be coincidence, with the hospital 'mopping up' all the cases in the area, instead of them being referred to other centres, he said. However, it was 'extremely unusual'.

Cranio-synostosis describes a condition in which one or more of the 'expansion' joints, known as sutures, in the skull fuse prematurely. Overall, the incidence is between 1 in 2,000 and 1 in 4,000 live births.

For the type of cranio-synostosis diagnosed at Charing Cross, the incidence is 1 in 180,000 live births. The appearance of the skull depends on the joints affected; in most cases where only one is involved the problem is cosmetic and can be corrected by surgery. In a few cases where more than one joint is fused, the pressure on the brain is raised and mental retardation is a risk.

A fifth of the Yorkshire cases are believed to be genetic and a link with pesticides and pollution has also been suggested, and is under investigation. The cases occurred in a small, rural area between Selby and York. One doctor said: 'It got to the stage where a kid would be brought into the department and we'd say: 'We know where you come from - Selby'.'

Yesterday it emerged that two of the affected babies lived in the same street in Selby. Dr Philip Kirby, of North Yorkshire Health Authority, said: 'If you have two people in the same road with the same condition then that is interesting. But it doesn't prove anything as such. It will just make us look even harder for environmental factors or other links.'

Lyndy Lewis, 41, who lives in Hackney, east London, has a son who was born with cranio-synostosis. Lead has been suggested as a possible cause and Ms Lewis blames her son's case on her exposure to lead from car exhaust fumes during early pregnancy, when she cycled through central London to work and back. 'Sam's forehead looked like the bow of the ship,' she said.

At four months, Sam, now three, underwent surgery at the Hospital for Sick Children, Great Ormond Street, London. It involved removal of the front piece of his skull from ear to ear; the bones were then broken, re- shaped and replaced. He has recovered completely.