Families in 16 Ramsey County neighborhoods have begun receiving letters urging them to take part in the largest and longest study of children's health ever conducted in the United States.
The National Children's Study will look at what factors contribute to autism, asthma, attention deficit disorder and other serious childhood ailments.
105 counties nationwide were selected to participate in the study. Ramsey County was chosen because of the diverse background of its residents.
More than 100,000 U.S. kids, including 1,000 from Ramsey County, will be recruited for the study. Researchers will examine how air quality, food, neighborhoods and family history affect kids' health.
"In the last two decades we've been seeing increasing prevalence of certain conditions, like autism, like diabetes, like obesity in kids," said University of Minnesota public health professor Pat McGovern, who also is the project's lead investigator in Ramsey County. "And what scientists think -- but they've never really had enough kids followed long enough to figure out -- is, is that a gene/environment interaction?"
It will be years before scientists gather enough data to test their genetic and environmental theories. In the meantime, their most challenging task will be recruiting enough pregnant women to join the study and stick with it for 21 years following the birth of their babies.
In addition to the letters that are being sent to 32,000 households in Ramsey County, study organizers are attending community baby showers and health fairs to spread the word about the study.
At a recent event with 15 representatives from schools, social service and health agencies, Deb Hendricks, Director of Community engagement for the Ramsey County study, explains the project.
"What we are really doing is looking at where children live, where they play, where they go to school, where they spend their time, how they spend their time, what they eat to see what we can find out over the long-term about children's health," she tells her audience.
Hendricks doesn't ask for any help in recruiting families. But she hopes if these educators do get questions from the public, that they'll be able to put in a good word for the project.
Researchers are sensitive to the possibility that some residents will be skeptical about a government-sponsored study.
"They have some hesitation," said Kerri Sawyer, a community liaison for the project. "Some of the questions they ask is, 'Are they going to be doing any experimentation on us?' ... or, 'Will we have to take any medications?' We always try to assure them this is an observational study."
For most families that means they will do nothing more than fill out a survey every year or so. A small number of families will be asked to submit biological and environmental samples, including blood, urine, saliva and possibly soil, tap water and food from their homes. Survey participants can decline that request at any time.
Researchers know that they're asking a lot of their study participants. The University of Minnesota's Pat McGovern suspects altruism will be the motivating force behind most of the mothers who sign up for the study.
"It would be a mom who's interested in children's health, the health of her children, the health of her grandchildren," McGovern said. "I think ultimately while she'll learn something about her own health and that of her children, it's really about the next generation and the generation after that."
More than 50 years have passed since the last major U.S. study of children's health. That research, called the National Collaborative Perinatal Project, eventually lead to the publication of more than 600 scientific papers. Some of the most groundbreaking data from that study revealed links between smoking and Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, and the neurological damage associated with fetal alcohol and lead exposures.
The neighborhoods included in the study: Greater East Side, Payne-Phalen, North End, Highland, Thomas/Dale, West Side, Como, Hamline/Midway, St. Anthony Park, Dayton's Bluff, Arden Hills, New Brighton, Maplewood, Mounds View, Shoreview and White Bear Lake.
Potential participants can call (612) 626-5437.