Did Your Child Suffer Kernicterus as a Result of Negligence?

Kernicterus is a devastating and potentially life-threatening birth injury that can be prevented through proper monitoring and treatment of jaundice in infants.​

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kernicterus Birth Injury lawsuits

Kernicterus is a devastating and potentially life-threatening birth injury that can be prevented through proper monitoring and treatment of jaundice in infants.

When medical professionals fail to recognize and appropriately treat newborn jaundice, it can lead to a rare and devastating condition known as kernicterus. Kernicterus occurs when bilirubin levels in a baby’s blood become dangerously high, causing permanent brain damage and potential disabilities or death. Kernicterus is a preventable birth injury that can be avoided through proper monitoring and treatment of jaundice in infants. If your child suffered kernicterus as a result of medical negligence, contact our consumer advocates today. We can put you in touch with a knowledgeable attorney with experience handling birth injury claims. 

What is Kernicterus?

Kernicterus, also referred to as bilirubin-induced neurologic dysfunction (BIND) or bilirubin encephalopathy (BE), is a neonatal disorder caused by elevated levels of bilirubin in the blood. Bilirubin is a yellow pigment produced when red blood cells break down naturally. In normal circumstances, the liver filters and removes bilirubin from the body. However, in some cases, a newborn’s liver may not be fully developed or functioning optimally, leading to a buildup of bilirubin in the blood. This excess bilirubin can cross the blood-brain barrier and cause damage to the central nervous system, resulting in kernicterus.

Definition and Prevalence

Kernicterus is a rare condition, occurring in approximately 1.5 per 100,000 live births in the United States. The incidence has decreased since the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) published guidelines on hyperbilirubinemia in 1994. These guidelines emphasize the importance of monitoring bilirubin levels in newborns to prevent the development of kernicterus.

Bilirubin and its Role in Kernicterus

Bilirubin is a natural byproduct of the breakdown of red blood cells. It is transported to the liver, where it undergoes a series of chemical reactions and is eventually eliminated from the body through the stool. In newborns, the liver is still maturing and may not efficiently process and excrete bilirubin. As a result, bilirubin levels can rise, leading to jaundice, a yellowing of the skin and eyes. If left untreated, high levels of bilirubin can pose a risk to the developing brain, causing kernicterus.

Possible Causes of Kernicterus

Kernicterus is primarily caused by hyperbilirubinemia, which occurs when there is an excessive buildup of bilirubin in the blood. Various factors can contribute to the development of hyperbilirubinemia and subsequently increase the risk of kernicterus. In newborns, hyperbilirubinemia is often a result of the physiological process of breaking down and eliminating excess red blood cells. However, in some cases, this process may be disrupted, leading to an accumulation of bilirubin in the blood. This buildup can manifest as jaundice, a visible yellowing of the skin and eyes.

Underlying Conditions and Risk Factors

Several factors can increase an infant’s susceptibility to kernicterus. These include:

  • Premature birth: Babies born before 37 weeks of gestation may have underdeveloped livers, making it more difficult for them to process bilirubin effectively.
  • Bruising or trauma during birth: Injuries sustained during delivery, such as bruising or the formation of hematomas, can contribute to increased bilirubin levels.
  • Blood type incompatibility: When a mother and baby have different blood types, antibodies from the mother can attack the baby’s red blood cells, leading to an increased breakdown of cells and subsequent bilirubin production.
  • Exclusive breastfeeding: In some cases, insufficient milk intake during breastfeeding can contribute to the development of jaundice and subsequent kernicterus.
  • Inherited conditions: Certain genetic disorders, such as glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase deficiency, can impair the breakdown and elimination of red blood cells, resulting in higher bilirubin levels.
  • Infection or sepsis: Infections in newborns can disrupt normal liver function, leading to a buildup of bilirubin.
  • East Asian or Mediterranean descent: Infants with these ethnic backgrounds may have a higher risk of developing jaundice due to genetic factors.
  • Family history: A history of jaundice or hyperbilirubinemia in siblings or close relatives may indicate a higher risk for the condition.
  • Other underlying medical conditions: Certain medical conditions, such as liver disease or enzyme deficiencies, can impair the liver’s ability to process bilirubin effectively.

By understanding the causes and risk factors associated with kernicterus, healthcare providers can better identify and manage infants at risk for this condition, potentially preventing long-term consequences.

Signs and Symptoms of Kernicterus

Recognizing the signs and symptoms of kernicterus is crucial for early detection and intervention. The presentation of symptoms varies depending on the stage of kernicterus and the severity of the condition.

Stages of Kernicterus

Kernicterus typically progresses through three stages, each characterized by distinct symptoms:

  • Early stage: In the early stage, infants may exhibit extreme jaundice, decreased feeding and sucking ability, lethargy or sleepiness, hypotonia (low muscle tone), and a lack of response to loud sounds. This stage is critical for prompt intervention to prevent further brain damage.
  • Middle stage: As kernicterus advances, infants may display irritability, a high-pitched cry, hypertonia (increased muscle tone), arching of the back with hyperextended neck, bulging of the soft spot on the head (fontanelle), repetitive hand or arm movements, and abnormal muscle contractions. Seizures may also occur during this stage.
  • Late stage: In the late stage, infants may experience feeding difficulties, stiffness of muscles, high muscle tone and rigidity, speech disorders, hearing loss (especially high-frequency hearing loss), developmental delays, intellectual disabilities, and seizures. Late-stage kernicterus can result in long-term impairments and disabilities.

The Importance of Diagnosis and Screening

The timely diagnosis and screening of infants at risk for kernicterus is essential for prompt intervention. Healthcare providers employ various methods to assess bilirubin levels and identify newborns who require further evaluation and treatment.

APGAR Scores and Postpartum Care

The APGAR score is a standardized assessment tool used to evaluate a newborn’s overall health and well-being immediately after birth. The score is based on five factors: 

  • Appearance
  • Pulse
  • Grimace
  • Activity
  • Respiration

A low APGAR score may indicate potential health issues, including jaundice and kernicterus. Close monitoring and appropriate postpartum care are crucial to identify any signs of distress and promptly address them.

Physical Examination and Bilirubin Level Testing

Healthcare providers conduct physical examinations to assess newborns for signs of jaundice. They may visually inspect the baby’s skin, eyes, and mucous membranes for yellow discoloration. Additionally, bilirubin level testing is performed to determine the severity of jaundice and guide treatment decisions. Various methods can be used to measure bilirubin levels, including blood tests, transcutaneous bilirubinometers, and laboratory analysis.

Kernicterus Treatment Options

Timely and appropriate treatment is crucial in managing kernicterus and minimizing the risk of brain damage. The treatment approach depends on the severity of jaundice and bilirubin levels in the bloodstream.

Light Therapy and Phototherapy

Light therapy, also known as phototherapy, is a common treatment modality for jaundice and hyperbilirubinemia. During phototherapy, babies are exposed to specific wavelengths of light, which help break down bilirubin into forms that are more easily eliminated from the body. This treatment is often administered using special lights or blankets that emit blue or green light.

Intravenous Immunoglobulin Transfusion and Blood Exchange Transfusion

In severe cases of hyperbilirubinemia or when phototherapy is ineffective, additional treatments may be necessary. Intravenous immunoglobulin (IVIG) transfusion involves the administration of immunoglobulin, which helps bind and remove excess bilirubin from the bloodstream. Blood exchange transfusion is a more invasive procedure that involves replacing the baby’s blood with donor blood to lower bilirubin levels rapidly. The choice of treatment depends on the individual infant’s condition, bilirubin levels, and the underlying cause of hyperbilirubinemia. Close monitoring and regular follow-up assessments are crucial to ensure the effectiveness of treatment and to prevent further complications.

Complications and Long-Term Effects

Kernicterus can have long-lasting and life-altering consequences for affected infants. The extent of the complications depends on the severity and duration of high bilirubin levels. Potential complications and long-term effects of kernicterus include:

Brain Damage and Neurological Impairments

The toxic effects of elevated bilirubin on the developing brain can lead to permanent brain damage and neurological impairments. This damage can manifest as motor impairments, including athetoid cerebral palsy, characterized by involuntary and uncontrolled movements. Cognitive impairments, developmental delays, learning disabilities, and behavioral issues may also occur. The specific effects vary depending on the areas of the brain affected and the severity of the damage.

Hearing Loss and Developmental Delays

Kernicterus can cause high-frequency hearing loss, affecting a child’s ability to hear and understand speech. This hearing impairment can impact language development and social interactions. Additionally, developmental delays may be observed in areas such as motor skills, speech and language acquisition, cognitive abilities, and overall intellectual functioning.

The long-term effects of kernicterus can significantly impact a child’s quality of life and require ongoing support and intervention to optimize their development and well-being.

Legal Considerations and Birth Injury Claims

When a healthcare provider’s negligence or failure to diagnose and treat jaundice leads to kernicterus, families may have legal recourse to seek compensation for their child’s injuries and losses. Medical negligence and malpractice can occur when healthcare professionals deviate from the standard of care expected in their field, resulting in harm to the patient. If you believe that your child has suffered from kernicterus due to medical negligence, it is essential to consult with an experienced birth injury attorney. They can evaluate your case, gather evidence, and guide you through the legal process of pursuing a birth injury claim. Compensation obtained through a successful claim can help cover medical expenses, ongoing care and therapy, future educational needs, and other damages associated with the birth injury.

Preventing Kernicterus in Newborns

Healthcare providers should closely monitor newborns for signs of jaundice, especially those at higher risk, such as preterm infants or those with underlying conditions. Regular bilirubin level testing and appropriate treatment, including phototherapy or other interventions, should be promptly initiated when indicated. Timely referrals to specialists, such as neonatologists or pediatric hematologists, can ensure comprehensive care and management of hyperbilirubinemia.

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What should you do? If your child suffered kernicterus due to medical negligence, you should contact a lawyer as soon as possible to discuss filing a lawsuit.

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Kernicterus is a rare but devastating condition that can result from untreated jaundice in newborns. High levels of bilirubin can lead to permanent brain damage, developmental delays, hearing loss, and other long-term complications. Early recognition, diagnosis, and treatment are crucial in preventing the progression of kernicterus and minimizing its impact on infants’ lives. Additionally, families affected by kernicterus due to medical negligence may have legal options to seek compensation for their child’s injuries and losses. If you suspect that your child has suffered from kernicterus due to medical negligence, it is essential to consult with an experienced birth injury attorney to understand your rights and pursue a potential legal claim. Call our consumer advocates today or fill out the form. We can put you in touch with an attorney who can help. 

By submitting this form, you confirm that you have read and agreed to Select Justice, LLC, LeadClient, Inc., or a law firm may contact you about their services at your above phone number even if it is on a National or State Do Not Call List. Calls / texts may employ automated dialing technology and prerecorded / artificial voice messages and email. I understand my consent is not a condition of any purchase.

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