The second leading cause of infant deaths in Saskatchewan is congenital anomalies (CA), things like heart defects and down syndrome. Saskatoon Health Region is trying to help find out more about these birth defects so more research can be done to prevent them.

“We are trying to find the best way to gather information about these anomalies – be it a review of charts, a reporting form for units or something else,” says epidemiologist Krista Homstol who is the coordinator of a CA surveillance system for the Region. “We need to work with ultrasound clinics, pediatrics, the Kinsmen Children’s centre as well as others to gather data.”

Krista Homstol is coordinator of the Congenital Anomalies Surveillance System.

The surveillance system is the first of its kind in Saskatchewan. “CAs pose a significant burden on medical and non-medical resources and create a considerable emotional and economic burden for families and communities,” says Homstol. “Despite Saskatchewan being one of the provinces with the highest rates of infant mortality, it is one of few provinces without a surveillance system to monitor CAs.”

The Health Region and the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) are working together to gather the data. The surveillance system will operate in Saskatoon Health Region first with plans to expand across Saskatchewan. In April 2010, PHAC funded Homstol’s position.

“You can’t get a good sense of the impact birth defects have on the province until you have a surveillance system to measure the prevalence over time and space ,” adds Homstol. “Then we’ll have a clear picture in Saskatchewan about what congenital anomalies occur and where they are most prevalent. Then researchers can use the information for things such as determining the causes of CAs, to assessing the effectiveness of prevention strategies like taking folic acid while pregnant.”

As new technologies and programs are introduced to help further prevent, detect and manage children with CAs, it is vital that timely surveillance be conducted to measure the impact of these strategies. Along with understanding the impact of prevention strategies, surveillance systems can be used to monitor trends. There is increased concern over adverse exposures that affect fetal development, and surveillance systems can be used to measure the impact of these exposures, as well as identify opportunities to prevent or modify these exposures.

The Health Region’s Congenital Anomalies Surveillance System Steering Committee is in the initial stages of identifying all departments that have information on infants up to one year of age with CAs. If your department has not already been contacted and has information on CAs, please contact coordinator Krista Homstol by e-mail,, or by telephone 306-655-1699.