The Washington State Health Department Tuesday released more data about the rare birth defect Anencephaly.

This rare but fatal defect occurs when neural tubes in a baby's brain don't fully form during the first month of pregnancy.   Little is known about the exact cause of the defect, but according to the Health Department, women can reduce the risk of Anencephaly by taking folic acid during pregnancy, or if they are planning to have a child.

Tragically, babies with this defect die shortly after birth.    Since 2010,  Anencephaly rates in Benton, Franklin and Yakima counties have been four times the national average.    Nationally, about 2.1 babies out of every 10,000 born have the defect,  in these three counties, the rate is about 8.7.  This is the fourth consecutive year the rates have been higher than the national average.

Health Department officials conducted a study with help from several local and federal agencies to try to find some answers.  While the study was inconclusive, the Health Department reported the following:

There were no significant differences between infants with anencephaly and healthy infants in the area, yet medical records showed low rates of folic acid vitamin use for this area. This is consistent with information from the Pregnancy Risk Assessment Monitoring System that showed fewer women in the three counties report early use of prenatal vitamins or folic acid supplements than women in the rest of the state for 2009–2011.

Officials say this doesn't guarantee folic acid will prevent the defect entirely, but does seem to indicate women who take the supplement appear to have lowered their risk.   Health Department officials strongly urge all pregnant women to seek counsel from their doctor, and make sure they follow the recommendations of their physician closely.

Officials continue to study the situation closely, and are still looking for more conclusive answers, as well as ways to reduce the rate in the three counties.