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Environmental Influences on Child Health Outcomes (ECHO) longitudinal study recruits thousandth child
How do environmental factors such as air pollution, chemical exposures, social, genetic, and neighborhood exposures influence obesity and asthma rates? We are also all aware that a new environmental exposure, the COVID-19 pandemic, has influenced our children’s access to social and educational resources. How might this influence the health and developmental outcomes of our children?
The College of Health and Human Services (the College) is exploring these questions as it collaborates in the ECHO program, a seven-year initiative funded by the National Institutes of Health. In addition to the large number of children included in the longitudinal study and the collaboration of the research teams to maximize the study effectiveness, ECHO is the first national longitudinal childhood study being conducted during a pandemic.
The College joined the ECHO program and started seeing participants in January of 2020, and in March of 2021, the College enrolled its thousandth child in the study. The Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai leads the cohort with Boston Children’s Hospital and Mason. Mason and the families of Northern Virginia play a large role in the ECHO data; only five other ECHO cohorts in the ECHO consortium have enrolled more children into the national study.
To date, the College has recruited 1,000 children, completed more than 14,000 surveys, collected more than 1,600 biospecimens, and conducted more than 150 safe face-to-face visits with children and families. As part of their surveys, the College asks families questions to assess the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on their lives such as employment, staying home, and changes in diet. The research team also uses “child Fitbits” to track the activity of the children in the study over a week – providing a snapshot of how activity has changed during the pandemic. Together, these will provide critical information on how the pandemic is affecting children and families in the short term and over time.
The COVID-19 pandemic has presented an opportunity to study environmental impacts on children during a pandemic. “With the pandemic, we want to see how it has influenced the health of children and families,” explains Dr. Kathi Huddleston, principal investigator of ECHO at Mason. “For example, are they going to the doctor less and getting delayed in their routine vaccination schedules? Are students learning English as a second language losing progress because they’re not attending school and having as much opportunity to practice?”
“We’re deeply concerned about the psychological health of the next generation and the underlying health disparities and economic disadvantages that are being further exacerbated with the COVID-19 pandemic,” explains Huddleston. “We know there will be long-term impacts from the pandemic on children and families, and by participating in ECHO, we will be able to determine certain high-risk exposures and certain high-risk populations, so we can identify practice, programs, and policies that can address these issues and hopefully provide better future public health measures.”
Along with 68 other ECHO teams across the country, the College is working to investigate the impact of different types of environmental exposures, including the COVID-19 pandemic, on five key pediatric health and development outcomes: adverse pregnancy and birth outcomes; airway function; obesity; neurodevelopment, and health and well-being. Each cohort looks at a specific population or disease but shares its data with the larger consortium to maximize the research questions that can be answered with the longitudinal study.
Mason’s ECHO cohort will include data on more than 1,700 children by 2023, and the national ECHO program will include data on more than 50,000 children. Due to the unique collaboration of nearly seventy cohorts across the country – each now enrolling their families to the national program asking the same survey questions and collecting the same biological samples – ECHO will offer an unprecedented opportunity for researchers to assess how numerous environmental exposures impact a diverse set of children across our country.
The College’s participation in ECHO is part of a new set of research initiatives made possible with the opening of the Population Health Center on the Fairfax campus.