Kernicterus Birth Injury
Kernicterus is a rare form of brain damage which is caused by extremely high levels of bilirubin in an infant’s blood. Most infants initially have high bilirubin levels for the first few days or weeks of life. This is called newborn jaundice, and is normally nothing to worry about as it commonly rectifies itself or requires minimal treatment. However, if jaundice goes untreated, bilirubin may travel to a baby’s brain and cause permanent brain damage which could lead to life-long disability or even death.
Kernicterus is rare and should be fully preventable if doctors adhere to guidelines established by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) for the monitoring of infant bilirubin levels. If your child has been diagnosed with kernicterus, you may be entitled to compensation for pain and suffering, medical expenses, and other damages through a birth injury and medical negligence lawsuit.
Kernicterus Results from Improperly Treated Jaundice
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that kernicterus is a rare condition which results from jaundice which has gone too long without treatment.
According to the CDC, roughly 60% of all babies are born with a degree of jaundice, which causes their skin and the whites of their eyes to appear yellow. Jaundice is caused by excess bilirubin in the blood (hyperbilirubinemia). Bilirubin is a the natural byproduct of the breakdown of red blood cells, and a mother’s liver removes bilirubin from a baby during pregnancy. Frequently, children may be born with slightly under-developed livers, which means that they are unable to remove enough bilirubin from their systems. This is what causes jaundice in most newborns, and it usually becomes evident in the first few days of a baby’s life. There are, however, other causes of jaundice, including underlying diseases.
Because jaundice is so common, it is a condition of which all obstetricians and pediatricians are aware and the majority of hospitals test infants for jaundice before they are sent home after birth. In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics(AAP) recommends that babies are tested for jaundice when they are three days old and again when they are seven days old, as this is when bilirubin levels may be at their highest.
Treatment is not necessary for many babies who have jaundice, as it will naturally go away as the baby’s liver develops further. In some cases, a baby may be placed under special lights to reduce bilirubin levels. In more severe cases, babies may need a blood transfusion to filter out excess bilirubin. When jaundice is not properly treated, it can lead to the rare condition called kernicterus.
Symptoms of Kernicterus
If a baby has sever jaundice, the bilirubin in his or her system may pass into the brain, causing acute bilirubin encephalopathy. The Mayo Clinic states that acute bilirubin encephalopathy must be treated promptly, or it can progress to permanent brain damage, or kernicterus. Signs a baby may have acute bilirubin encephalopathy or kernicterus may include:
- High-pitched crying
- Baby is listless or difficult to wake
- Baby will not sleep
- Poor feeding or sucking
- Baby arches neck and body backward
- Baby does not soil enough diapers
- Baby feels stiff or limp
- Baby has strange eye movements
- Baby’s “soft spot”, or fontanel, bulges
If your baby is exhibiting any of the above symptoms, you should immediately seek emergency medical attention.
Kernicterus may Cause Severe or Fatal Injuries
If a child’s jaundice goes undiagnosed and untreated for an extensive period of time, that child may suffer severe injuries and permanent brain damage. Kernicterus may result in:
- Permanent upward gaze
- Athetiod cerebral palsy (involuntary and uncontrolled movements)
- Poor development of tooth enamel
- Hearing loss
- Learning disabilities
Is Kernicterus a Birth Injury?
Most people associate the term “birth injury” with injury or trauma suffered by an infant during the actual delivery process. In truth, a birth injury could also occur before a child is born if the baby or mother is improperly cared for, or a birth injury may occur during the first days of a child’s life. In the case of kernicterus, it is possible for parents to file a birth injury lawsuit on behalf of their child if a doctor did not properly monitor the child’s bilirubin levels or treat jaundice before it became more serious.
In addition to the fact that most babies with jaundice appear yellow, there are also clear kernicterus symptoms which should alert doctors to a potential for kernicterus nearly immediately. Furthermore, there are certain risk factors which may make a baby more likely to develop severe jaundice, including:
- Preterm birth
- Darker skin color
- East Asian or Mediterranean Descent
- A sibling who had jaundice
- Bruising at birth (may cause red blood cells to die and produce more bilirubin)
- Blood type (if the mother has blood type O or Rh-negative, her baby may be more likely to be jaundiced)
Jaundice is a very common condition, and obstetricians and pediatricians should be well aware of jaundice risk factors. Furthermore, jaundice is often visible to the eye, and every baby should be tested for jaundice in the first few days of life. Since kernicterus is a result of untreated jaundice, this debilitating and potentially fatal condition is completely preventable with proper medical care.
Kernicterus and Birth Injury Lawsuits
As the CDC says, “No baby should develop brain damage from untreated jaundice.”
Jaundice is far too common a condition, and far too easily treatable, for any child to suffer life-long injuries or wrongful death from extreme jaundice. If your child has kernicterus, it is possible (even likely) that he or she was not cared for and monitored according to established infant care guidelines. When this type of medical negligence affects a child, we have seen first-hand the impact it can have on not only the child but the entire family. Our experienced birth injury attorneys are dedicated to making sure that children and families affected by kernicterus recover full and just compensation for their damages, and that all negligent parties are held accountable. For more information on kernicterus or birth injury lawsuits, please contact us for a free and confidential consultation.