Funding for Wide-Ranging Kids' Health Study Axed

The Bush administration has canceled funding for the most ambitious study of children's health ever designed — prompting outrage among scientists and public health officials. The study was to investigate the causes of widespread obesity and asthma, among other childrens' health problems.

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Buried deep inside President Bush's budget proposal this week was a section that shocked some of the nation's leading pediatricians. It cut funding for the country's most ambitious study of children's health ever designed. The study was ready to be launched next year, and as NPR's Elizabeth Shogren reports, the cut has generated outrage.

ELIZABETH SHOGREN reporting:

The study was supposed to follow 100,000 children from before their mothers even get pregnant to their 21st birthdays. It would analyze the effects of environment, culture and genetics. Pediatricians around the country say it's their best hope for finding explanations for the epidemics plaguing American children: asthma, autism, obesity, and diabetes.

Dr. ALAN FLEISCHMAN (National Children's Study): New mothers and fathers are asking their pediatricians questions about these problems that we just don't have answers to.

SHOGREN: Dr. Alan Fleischman was appointed by the federal government to chair its advisory panel for the National Children's Study. He's furious about the President's request to stop funding it.

Dr. FLEISCHMAN: It's myopic, it's shortsighted, and it will cost us far more money and far more disability in the future because we won't be able to answer the questions of how to prevent these problems in children and young adults.

SHOGREN: He and the other members of the advisory board wrote a letter to the president urging him not to cancel the study. Ed Clark, the chief pediatrician at the University of Utah, is one of the people who's supposed to carry out the study. He says it's critical to understand the epidemics afflicting children that didn't exist 50 years ago.

Dr. ED CLARK (University of Utah): We know we have an epidemic of obesity and diabetes. We have another epidemic of asthma. We have an epidemic of autism and all of these really point to the fact that the current generation of children are the first generation in hundreds of years to be less healthy than their parents.

SHOGREN: He and his colleagues can't understand why the federal government would spend $50 million getting ready for a study, and then abandon it.

Dr. CLARK: I'm not just only surprised, I'm baffled. Why a study that has such broad support throughout the nation should be targeted for closure.

SHOGREN: Duane Alexander heads the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, the federal agency that's been the study's primary sponsor. He says he requested continued funding for it, but was turned down.

Mr. DUANE ALEXANDER (National Institute of Child Health and Human Development): Because of the extremely tight budget considerations that are being faced this year. Many other programs are being cut back or cut out as well, and the judgments are made that this is one that will just have to wait for a year or more until it can be implemented.

SHOGREN: The administration hasn't cited any other reasons for the cutback. Alexander says he is disappointed and he hopes that the study will resume in the future, when money is not so short.

Dr. ALEXANDER: Only a large study with this many children involved, and following them this long a period of time, and looking at this wide variety of environmental exposures and how they interact with each other, is able to separate out things that do have an adverse consequence of children's health and development from those that don't.

SHOGREN: The pediatricians say the President's request isn't the final word. They say they'll appeal to Congress to keep providing money for the National Children Study.

Elizabeth Shogren, NPR News, Washington.

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