What is kernicterus?
Kernicterus is a dangerous, but preventable, complication of jaundice in which the baby suffers brain damage. Kernicterus occurs when the baby’s bilirubin levels have been allowed to rise to dangerous levels through inadequate monitoring or delayed treatment of hyperbilirubinaemia.
If the liver is struggling to metabolise all the bilirubin in the baby’s bloodstream, the unprocessed or unconjugatedbilirubin can travel through the blood-brain barrier where it causes irreversible damage to the brain and spinal cord, permanent neurological disability and dysfunction. This is known as bilirubin encephalopathy. The pattern of damage and its characteristic yellow staining of the brain is known as kernicterus.
Who is at risk of kernicterus?
Increased risk factors for hyperbilirubinaemia include:
Newborn babies who develop jaundice within the first 24 hours
Babies whose siblings have suffered from hyperbilirubinaemia
Babies who are solely breast-fed
How can kernicterus be prevented?
Kernicterus can be prevented by:
awareness of the risks
early recognition of the signs of jaundice
careful monitoring of the condition including, if in a home setting, advising parents to call for help if they notice any deterioration
if the bilirubin reaches threshold levels for treatment, the baby will need phototherapy treatment or an exchange transfusion.
What is jaundice?
Jaundice is a common condition which is closely related to kernicterus and is the name that is given to the initial signs of excess bilirubin in the blood. These signs can include:
yellow discolouration of the baby’s skin
yellow discolouration of the whites of the baby’s eyes
dark stained urine which is visible in the nappy
stools which are pale and chalky rather than the usual yellowish brown
Jaundice affects 60% of full term babies and 80% of premature babies in their first week of life. It is often harmless and usually lasts up to two weeks. Babies who are exclusively breast fed are at greater risk, with 10% still having jaundice at one month of age.
Even though jaundice is usually transient and harmless, babies with jaundice must be diagnosed, carefully monitored and properly treated to avoid the development of kernicterus.
Jaundice can also be a sign that the baby is suffering from another serious condition which is affecting the liver’s ability to process the bilirubin, such as:
What are the signs of kernicterus brain damage?
Some of the early signs that the baby’s brain is being damaged include:
the baby doesn’t respond to stimulus, e.g. hands clapping in front of them
floppiness (decreased muscle tone)
arching of the spine
Longer term permanently disabling effects of kernicterus brain damage include:
impaired eye movements
Is Legal Aid available for kernicterus brain damage claims?
If your child suffered severe neurological injury, such as kernicterus brain damage or cerebral palsy as a result of medical negligence before birth, at birth or during the first eight weeks of life, they may be eligible for Legal Aid, depending on our assessment of the strength of each individual case.
Legal Aid is often available for kernicterus brain damage cases as they usually arise from negligent management of the baby’s bilirubin levels in the early neonatal period.
How can Boyes Turner help?
Our brain injury lawyers are specialists in achieving high value compensation awards for children with brain damage whether they have kernicterus through jaundice, cerebral palsy, disability from birth trauma, neonatal injury or permanent neurological damage caused by negligent medical treatment.
Our experienced lawyers have made many successful kernicterus brain injury claims for children and their families, whether that injury arose from negligent treatment in hospital, on the neonatal unit, or at home (following home birth or discharge from the community midwives).
We aim to achieve early admissions of liability and interim payments to alleviate the financial hardship that often follows a family member’s brain injury. This helps our client families to meet their child’s immediate needs for specialist equipment, therapies, adapted accommodation, special educational support and care. Each settlement is calculated and negotiated following detailed, expert assessment of the child’s condition to ensure the best provision for their present and future needs.
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