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'Health scandal': The mystery of babies born without arms in rural France

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'Health scandal': The mystery of babies born without arms in rural France
Photo: AFP
12:49 CEST+02:00
Small parts of rural France have seen a high number of babies born without hands or arms, but why isn't France investigating what's been dubbed by some as a "health scandal".
What's the story?
 
There have been several reports circulating in the French press over the past week about an unusually high number of babies born without hands and in some cases, without part of their forearms, in three specific areas of France.
 
A total of 13 babies were born without arms between 2007 and 2017 in three specific rural areas of the country that have come under the microscope.
 
Near the village of Druillat in the Ain department in eastern France (plot 1 on the map below), seven babies born were born without arms or hands between 2009 and 2014 all within 17 km of the village. 
 
The number of cases in Ain is 58 times the normal amount, according to some scientists, who first picked up on the worrying trend in 2011.
 
 
Three years later, similar cases were flagged around the town of Mouzeil in the western Loire-Atlantique department (plot 2 on the map below) where a total of three children were born with the same birth defects between the years of 2007 and 2008.
 
And in 2015, Guidel (see below), a town in Brittany (plot 3 on the map below) was identified as a new area of concern after a doctor, and mother of one of the three babies born between 2011 and 2013 with the same medical problems, alerted the authorities. 
 
Stats show that on average 150 babies are born each year around France with similar birth defects.
 
On Thursday, France's public health body, Santé Publique France admitted for the first time that the situations in Loire-Atlantique and Brittany reveal an excessive number of these kinds of cases. However they do not believe the evidence suggests there has been an excessive level of cases in Ain. 
 
Map customizer
 
Do we know why it's happening?
 
In short, no. The phenomenon, which some have labelled a "health scandal", remains unexplained. 
 
However Remera, a public body which looks into cases of malformation, conducted an investigation into the situation in the Ain department, interviewing the mothers to see if there were any factors linking them and their pregnancies. 
 
After speaking to the parents, doctors dismissed genetics, as well drugs and drink as possible causes for the missing arms. 
 
"We interviewed all the mothers with a very extensive questionnaire on their lifestyle. The only thing they have in common is that they all live in a very rural area," Emmanuelle Amar, director of Remera in the south east of France, said. 
 
What is the most likely explanation?
 
The medical community in France is divided. 
 
France's public health authority, Santé Publique France, which revealed the results of its own investigation on Thursday morning, has said "the statistical analysis does not highlight an excess of cases compared to the national average", referring directly to the cases in the Ain department. 
 
"We have not identified a common exposure to the occurrence of these malformations," said the director of the health body, François Bourdillon.
 
The agency has also conducted similar investigations on the cases in Loire-Atlantique and in Brittany.
 
Guidel in Brittany. Photo: AFP
 
"For the Loire-Atlantique and Brittany, the investigation concludes that there has been an excess of cases however "no common exposure was identified for the clustered cases of these two regions," said Anne Gallay another of the directors at Santé Publique France.
 
"We listened to their parents and their grandparents, visited the places where they live. No environmental factors - pesticides, for example - could be questioned."
 
The organisation has described the situation as "tragic" for the people involved but for the moment suggests there is no explanation. 
 
Previously the body had said that the cases were probably "down to chance".
 
However on the other side of the argument, Remera has dismissed the likelihood of it being down to a chance occurrence as "more than infinitesimal". 
 
According to doctors at Remera, the most likely cause behind this extraordinarily unusual situation is the agricultural industry, meaning pesticides. 
 
Not least because at the same time as these cases took place among the human population in the Ain department, several calves were born without a tail and missing ribs in Chalamont, another village in the department. 
 
"It is believed that this revolves around agriculture," said Amar who is anxious for the national health authorities to start their own investigations.
 
Photo: AFP
 
So, what happens now?
 
Santé Publique France has closed its investigation into the cases, it said on Thursday.
 
"The absence of a hypothesis of a possible common cause does not make it possible to hold further investigations," said the organisation. 
 
Meanwhile, Remera has said that it can't go any further investigating on its own.
 
"We have the elements, the data on these cases, but we need to bring the scientists together. For example, an ecotoxicologist (someone specialising on the effects of toxic chemicals on biological organisms) must work on it, and determine which is the most appropriate study," said a spokesperson for Remera.
 
"We are definitely facing an excess of cases. We have the scientific and moral obligation to go further," director of Remera, Amar said. 
 
What do the parents say?
 
Unsurprisingly, the parents of these children want answers. 
 
Melinda Mostini (pictured with her son Leo above), one of the mothers concerned has questioned if "it could be environmental". 
 
In her interview with FranceInfo, she mentioned "fertilizers, pesticides" and said "there may have been something that happened at this time in the town".
 
"I am outraged that no investigation has yet been launched," Céline Figueiredo, mother of Sacha, one of the babies born in Ain, said.
 
"We have the means in France to investigate the causes of these malformations. They must try to give us answers rather than cover up the case."
 
"We are impressed by Sacha. He never asks for help. But since he started at school, some of his friends have to ask him questions or make fun of him and he tells us he wants a hand.
 
"It is important for us to understand what may have happened during my pregnancy and to be able to answer him one day."
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