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False Positives on Newborns' Disease Tests Worry Parents

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FRIDAY, June 2 (HealthDay News) -- Newborns in some states are being screened for 30 or more disorders at birth, leading to a rise in false positives and a lot of unnecessary worry for parents, a new study has found.

When a baby is born, blood drawn from the heel is routinely used to test for disorders like phenylketonuria (PKU) and congenital hypothyroidism. For every true disorder diagnosed, research suggests there are 12 or more false positives, study leaders at Children's Hospital Boston said in a prepared statement.

Perhaps more troubling, the researchers added, is that the parental stress caused by these false positives lingers even when the infant is correctly retested.

Children's Hospital psychologists interviewed 173 families who had received false-positive results, comparing them to 67 families who had not. Mothers in the false-positive group, interviewed at least six months after their child's diagnosis had been ruled out, reported more worry about their child's future and rated their own health less favorably than mothers in the comparison group, the researchers said.

The study results, published in the June issue of Pediatrics, also found that 15 percent of mothers in the false-positive group felt their children needed extra parental attention, vs. 3 percent of mothers in the comparison group.

Study author psychologist Susan Waisbren said she believed a false positive increased parental expectations of illness, even when the test result was ultimately proven wrong. "We're not sure why -- maybe it feeds into a general nervousness as new parents," she said.

Waisbren and her colleagues recommended that parents be better educated about newborn screening, including a reminder that an initial positive doesn't always mean that an infant is actually sick.

More information

To learn more about newborn screening tests, visit the Nemours Foundation.

Children's Hospital Boston, press release, June 5, 2006
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