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Pediatrician to lead fight against Flint lead poisoning

Karen Bouffard
The Detroit News

The Michigan State University College of Human Medicine has launched an initiative to treat nearly 27,000 Flint children exposed to lead in the city’s water.

The effort will be led by Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, who discovered elevated lead levels in Flint children in August after the city began drawing water from the Flint River in April 2014.

Hanna-Attisha and other collaborators rolled out plans Thursday in Flint for a multifront battle against the medical, mental and cognitive problems children face in the economically depressed city. Participants include state and county health officials and the Michigan State University College of Human Medicine.

The collaboration will include experts from medicine, education, environmental science and other disciplines. Lead is toxic to both adults and children, but is especially harmful to children because it interferes with development of the nervous system, causing potentially permanent learning and behavioral disorders.

Based on 2014, U.S. Census Bureau data, about 27 percent of Flint’s 99,000 residents are age 17 or younger, and 3,000 Flint children are 5 years or younger — the age group most vulnerable to long-term damage from lead exposure because their brains are developing rapidly.

The scale of the task and the breadth of the collaboration will be groundbreaking, officials said. Officials will try to tap state, federal and private funding sources to propel the initiative.

“We can sit back and in 10, 15 years ....we can see a community suffering from the cognitive, the behavioral ramifications of this population-wide exposure,” Hanna-Attisha said Thursday at a news conference announcing the collaboration. “Or we could do something.

“This is our opportunity to build something that’s never been built before.”

Hanna-Attisha, a graduate of the Michigan State University College of Human Medicine, outlined a three-pronged approach that will involve scientific research, long-term monitoring of the children and development of evidence-based interventions to counter lead’s debilitating effects.

“I imagine that in 10, 20 years, the children of Flint may have a brighter future than they have now, and that is absolutely our goal, our obligation and our duty,” she said.

Dr. Dean Sienko, associate dean for prevention and public health and director of the MSU College of Human Medicine’s public health division in Flint, outlined the university’s role in the initiative.

“We will help her establish and conduct her studies with multiple MSU experts,” Sienko said. “We will identify experts in environmental health, epidemiology, pediatrics, perinatal health, developmental assessment, toxicology, nutrition and medical geography.”

The Genesee County Health Department, Michigan Department of Health and Human Services and MSU Extension will be included in the collaboration. The initiative will be supported by the MSU College of Human Medicine Division of Public Health in downtown Flint.

Even prior to the lead exposure, Flint children faced significant health risks associated with poverty and crime, Hanna-Attisha noted. She said interventions must include not only the children, but their parents, who have been traumatized by the crisis.

“You can’t strengthen children without strengthening adults,” she said. “So a lot of our interventions will be around building adult capacity.”

Richard Sadler, a geographer and assistant professor in the MSU College of Human Medicine’s Public Health Division, who worked with Hanna-Attisha to calculate rates of lead poisoning in the city, estimates about 10,000 children live in the three Flint neighborhoods where lead exposure was greatest, and so are at significant risk of negative health impacts.

Michigan Chief Medical Executive Eden Wells, who attended Thursday’s press conference, said every child in the city who drank Flint water experienced some level of exposure to lead.