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Alberta commits $26M to women’s health research, expanding newborn screening program

Newborn baby's foot with pulse sensor for monitor and moving in the incubator. skaman306/Getty Images

Alberta is committing nearly $30 million over the next two years to women’s health research and expanding the province’s newborn screening program.

At a news conference in Calgary Friday morning, Premier Danielle Smith said budget 2024 commits $20 million in funding over the next two years to improve women’s health research.

“This funding will strengthen Alberta’s position as a national leader in women’s health and enable our province to provide better care to the nearly two million women in our province,” Smith said.

Half of the funding will be used to create the Alberta Women’s Health Foundation Legacy Grant, which will go towards research on cervical cancer, heart disease and other common women’s health conditions. The money will also be used to recruit researchers from across the country to Alberta.

“Advances in diagnosis and treatment begin with research,” said Sharlene Rutherford, president and CEO of the Alberta Women’s Health Foundation. “This announcement demonstrates our government’s commitment to this province’s 2.2 million women and girls and their healthy futures.”

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The other $10 million will go to the Calgary Health Foundation to fund cancer research, as well as the development of a rapid access clinic and pelvic floor health projects in Calgary.

“This investment will enable us to give the necessary attention, funding and advocacy to the unique health challenges of women,” said Murray Sigler, president and CEO of the Calgary Health Foundation.

Dr. Erin Brennand, department head of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Calgary, said a rapid access clinic for gynecologic conditions is a priority and will improve the quality of women’s lives, as well as the length of them.

“We know that the wait for reproductive health care is growing. It can be as long as two years to see a specialist in the city,” she said.

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“I am telling the truth when I say that every single one of my call shifts here at the Foothills in the last two months involved telling a woman that she had advanced reproductive tract cancer because she couldn’t be seen for her uterine bleeding fast enough.”

Click to play video: 'Women’s health crisis in southern Alberta: The path forward'
Women’s health crisis in southern Alberta: The path forward

Additionally, Health Minister Adriana LaGrange said $6 million is being committed through budget 2024 to expand the newborn screening program to screen babies for four new conditions.

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Currently, the Alberta Newborn Screening Program tests newborn babies for 22 conditions to ensure infants who may have one of the conditions get early treatment if needed.

The four new conditions the screening program will now test for are: congenital cytomegalovirus, argininosuccinic aciduria, guanidinoacetate methyltransferase deficiency and mucopolysaccharidosis type 1. (See below for more information on these conditions).

LaGrange said Alberta will be the first province in Canada to screen newborns for these four additional conditions.

“This will make the program one of the most comprehensive in the country,” LaGrange said.

The newborn screening program involves pricking a baby’s heel shortly after birth. That blood sample is then quickly screened for dozens of conditions that could lead to serious health conditions, developmental disabilities or even death.

“It’s extremely important,” LaGrange said of the quick turnaround of the blood sample.

“If there is one of these conditions present within that infant, we want to be able to start treatment immediately and sometimes it goes undiagnosed.”

The health minister said in 2022-23, the newborn screening program successfully screened 99.2 per cent of infants born in Alberta.

Dr. Eliza Phillips, a metabolic specialist at the Alberta Children’s Hospital in Calgary, follows children and their families who receive positive test results.

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“I see every day the difference that the early diagnosis of these conditions make. It can mean the difference between a child who is severely disabled and a child who will grow up healthy, normal development,” Phillips said.

“It’s just life-changing for these families.”

The four new conditions being screened for are:

  • Congenital cytomegalovirus: Congenital cytomegalovirus (CMV) is a condition that can result in various health issues for the baby, including hearing loss, vision impairment, intellectual disability and developmental delays.
  • Argininosuccinic aciduria: Argininosuccinic aciduria is a rare genetic disorder with symptoms that can include poor feeding, vomiting, lethargy, developmental delays, seizures and coma. Treatment often involves a special diet and medications to manage ammonia levels.
  • Guanidinoacetate methyltransferase deficiency: Guanidinoacetate methyltransferase deficiency is a rare genetic disorder that can lead to developmental delays, seizures and other problems.
  • Mucopolysaccharidosis Type 1: Mucopolysaccharidosis Type 1 (MPS I) is a rare genetic disorder that can cause skeletal abnormalities, organ enlargement, heart and respiratory problems, developmental delays, intellectual disability, and vision and hearing loss.

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