Before leaving the hospital, all newborn babies in California get pricked in the heel to collect a few drops of their blood. The blood is then screened for more than 30 genetic disorders that, although rare, can cause physical problems, mental retardation and sometimes death.
In Israel, babies are tested for just two conditions. And Professor Mordechai Shani wants to change that.
Shani is former director of Chaim Sheba Medical Center at Tel Hashomer, the hospital that houses the country's national blood bank and which processes the two tests currently given Israeli infants. He is spearheading establishment of the Israel Center for Newborn Screening, which would adopt state-of-the-art technology and expand newborn screening to include 20 treatable conditions.
Los Angeles supporters have taken the lead role in generating funds for the project through their involvement in the Los Angeles chapter of Friends of Sheba, a volunteer fundraising group for the medical center. Marilyn Ziering, a former president of the Friends board, now chairs the board of the Israel Center for Newborn Screening's four-year campaign.
On March 21, the campaign was officially launched through a gala at Beverly Hilton Hotel honoring Anna and Max Webb. The couple has provided the largest gift thus far of the more than $5 million raised to date.
The Israel Center for Newborn Screening will be housed in its own wing at Sheba Medical Center, which is located on the outskirts of Tel Aviv. The government of Israel will incur all operating costs as of 2009. In the meantime, supporters hope to raise $14.6 million in private donations to build and supply the center, and to provide operating costs for the program's first four years.
Ziering has a special connection to the project. In 1978, she and her husband, Sigi, began supplying testing kits produced by their company, Diagnostic Products Corporation, at no cost to Israel. The kits enabled all babies born in the country to be tested for congenital hypothyroidism. Infants with this disease lack sufficient thyroid hormone, and can suffer mental retardation and slowed growth. Daily medication can prevent these problems. Since testing for the condition began in Israel, more than 1,800 infants with congenital hypothyroidism have been identified.
Jack Saltzberg, executive director of Friends of Sheba, also will serve as executive director of the newly formed Israel Center for Newborn Screening Campaign. The project hit home for Saltzberg when his son, born three months ago, was tested for genetic diseases.
"I started thinking that had he been born in Israel, he would not be afforded the same tests that he had here in California," he said. "It's really a shonda [shame] that Israel -- the leader in the world in health care and technology -- is not even up to par with California in regard to newborns. Now we're changing that."
While in other countries -- including the United States -- screening falls under the authority of individual states or provinces, the Israeli program would be under the authority of the Israeli Ministry of Health. The center would thus be the first centralized, national program in the world.
"Healthy children are the future of Israel," professor Shani said by phone from Israel.
He added that the rate of genetic disease in the Israeli population is higher than the rate in the U.S. because of consanguinity (decent from the same ancestor) among both Jews and Arabs.
Supporters are proud that the new center will provide testing for all babies, regardless of their race, religion or social status. Ziering sees the project not only as a lifesaving opportunity, but as a means of promoting peace.
"I can't imagine any Arab mother whose child was saved by the government of Israel allowing that child to become a suicide bomber," she said.
In order to be effective, newborn screening should be done while babies are between 12 hours and 6 days old. Early treatment can prevent many of the problems associated with these conditions, but depends on prompt diagnosis. Conditions that can be detected include metabolic diseases, which affect the body's ability to use certain parts of food for growth, energy and repair; endocrine diseases, which involve producing too much or to little of certain hormones; and hemoglobin diseases, which often lead to anemia.
Ziering says that the community has been very receptive to the project. "When so much talk is about the destruction of life, we're embarking on saving lives," she said. "Is there a better place to give your money that to save a life?"
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