The state health department's preventive medicine administration has received a $1.09 million grant to establish genetic testing and counseling programs throughout Maryland over the next three years.
The funds were awarded by the health services administration of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Neil A. Holtzman, chief of the hereditary disorders division at Johns Hopkins Hospital, said the grant is geared toward reaching people in outlying areas of the state who do not have access to genetic counseling, which generally is offered only at large medical centers. Charles R. Buck Jr., secretary of the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, estimates that the grant will improve the care of nearly 10 percent of Maryland's newborns and children whohave genetic disorders or the potential for genetic diseases.
The administration has begun programs in Washington and Frederick counties. Holtzman predicts that by 1981, outreach programs will be established in parts of Montgomery and Prince George's counties with the help of Children's Hospital Medical Center.
Although all children born in Maryland hospitals are screened for genetic disorders, Holtzman said, the administration intends to provide screening for carriers of genetic disorders such as Tay Sachs disease, which is generally found in descendants of Eastern European Jews; sickle-cell anemia, a chronic anemia found chiefly among blacks, and thalassemia, chronic anemia found among Mediterranean peoples. Rh-factor screening also will be made available to pregnant women.
Tests will include blood analyses, amnioscentesis (analysis of amniotic fluid) and a new test, called alphafetroprotein, which detects deformation of the fetal nervous system. At present, the alphafetroprotein test is performed only at Johns Hopkins.
The grant program also provides for counseling after a person or unborn child has been identified as a carrier of a genetic disorder. At that point, medical geneticists can inform prospective parents about the risk of having an affected offspring, and advise them on the options open to them.
"Doctors have been ignorant about the availability of these tests," said Holtzman."One of the main tasks of the grant will be physician education."
Local health departments and health organizations will help the administration set up programs at hospitals, clinics and other places where they are needed. By the fall of 1982, Holtzman said he expects that eight "satellite clinics" will have been established. He said fees will be charged for the tests, but the grant funds will pay for the services of physicians and counselors.
He said 10 percent of the grant will subsidize genetic research at the prestigious John F. Kennedy Institute in Baltimore. The institute is to function as a regional resource, to eliminate the costs and delays involved in sending specimens out of state for analysis.
Holtzman said scientists increasingly are becoming aware that a number of common diseases, such as heart disease, have genetic components. "There, too, we can provide counseling," he said.