Infants Surviving NEC Face Devastating and Permanent Injuries at Start of Life

Infants with NEC face stomach tubes, frequent blood draws, feeding interruptions, and permanent disabilities and medical problems.

Necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC) is a devastating ailment which can afflict premature infants, which is substantially more likely to occur if the child is fed cow’s milk-based infant formula, instead of breast milk. While the condition is often fatal, children who survive NEC can face traumatic treatment, multiple surgeries, and a life of disability and medical care.

A recent study published in the medical journal JAMA Pediatrics revealed that NEC is one of the leading causes of death among infants born premature. It occurs when the walls of the intestines are invaded by bacteria, leading to destruction of the bowel and often requiring emergency surgery while the baby is still in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), leaving NEC survivors with lengthy treatments and life-long bowel consequences.

Life-Long Effects of NEC for Children

According to the National Institutes of Health, NEC comes in three stages, known as the Bell stages. Stage 1 is when NEC is only suspected, and includes symptoms of bloody stool, lethargy, a slow heart rate, a fluctuating temperature, abdominal bloating and vomiting. At this stage, infants can be treated with supportive care, intravenous tube feeding and continued monitoring.

Stage 2, which involves a definite NEC diagnosis, includes all of the symptoms of Stage 1, but in addition the infant begins to suffer reduced blood platelet levels, excessive production of lactic acid, has no bowel sounds, the development of gas in the walls of the intestine, and pain when the abdomen is touched. Treatment at this point usually involves the inclusion of antibiotics.

It is Stage 3 NEC where the child is in the most danger, and the treatments get more drastic. Stage 3 Advanced NEC includes low blood pressure, low white blood cell counts, blood clot formation, a lack of urination, inflammation of abdominal tissues, irregular breathing, and the continued build-up of fluids and gases in the abdomen.

Treatment for advanced NEC can involve surgery to remove some of the intestines, intubation to remove air and fluid from the abdomen, intravenous antibiotic treatment, numerous taking of blood samples, and potentially oxygen and ventilator support.

For a fragile newborn, often already facing medical problems due to premature birth, these treatments can result in permanent health problems later in life, and may themselves increase the risk of injury, death, and other complications.

Link Between Infant Formula and NEC

Over the past few decades, a number of studies have established that cow’s milk formula like Similac and Enfamil cause NEC at at substantially higher rates than is seen among premature babies fed breast milk or donor milk alone, and a number of families are now pursuing NEC lawsuits against the manufacturers of these products, alleging that inadequate warnings and information have been provided for decades about the risk among pre-term babies.

Just recently, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) issued an updated policy statement urging parents to avoid feeding newborns infant formula, and calling for infants to be fed breast milk exclusively for the first six months of life.

Given similar questions of fact and law raised in complaints filed in various different U.S. District Courts nationwide, the U.S. Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation (JPML) established coordinated management for all NEC lawsuits against Similac and Enfamil manufacturers in April, requiring that any case filed throughout the federal court system be transferred to U.S. District Judge Rebecca R. Pallmeyer in the Northern District of Illinois.

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