Causes of Kernicterus

Attorneys Explain the Causes of Kernicterus – Medically and Legally

The medical term for the condition which leads to kernicterus is hyperbilirubinemia - or “high bilirubin.” In the hours and days following birth, jaundice in newborns occurs when a blood byproduct, called bilirubin, reaches excessive levels. Bilirubin is formed in everyone’s body, and is a normal part of recycling and shedding old red blood cells. Mild jaundice is present in most newborns, and clears up on its own.

Once a baby leaves the womb, its body has to take over many processes on its own. Eliminating bilirubin is one of them. Sometimes, a baby has trouble processing and eliminating the bilirubin, and the levels increase way beyond proportions that are safe.

When extremely high levels of bilirubin are in the body, it can penetrate the brain tissue. This leads to kernicterus – which causes serious neurological disorders and brain damage. If the baby survives, he or she may be stricken with disorders including forms of cerebral palsy, deafness, mental retardation, and vision impairment.

Recognized Risks Factors For Kernicterus

All healthy babies are at risk of kernicterus if their newborn jaundice is unmonitored and inadequately treated. Yet, some babies may have genetic situations or health conditions that make them more susceptible to high bilirubin levels.

These risk factors include:

  • Premature babies (born before 37 weeks)
  • A baby who has bruises at birth
  • East-Asian, African, or Mediterranean heritage in whom G6PD (Glucose-6-Phosphate Dehydrogenase) deficiency is common. G6PD is an enzyme that helps red blood cells work properly.
  • Babies who have difficulty nursing
  • Presentation of jaundice (yellowing) in the first 24 hours
  • Rh incompatibility between the baby and the mother, or mother with O blood type
  • Mother with diabetes
  • Baby’s brother or sister had newborn jaundice

How Medical Negligence Causes Kernicterus

Mismanagement of hyperbilirubinemia – high bilirubin – by the baby’s physicians and medical team can be the cause of kernicterus in a number of ways:

  1. Failure to monitor and test, or wrongly assess, a baby’s blood level of bilirubin
  2. Newborns are discharged from the hospital early, before the extent of jaundice is known, and before signs of brain damage have presented
  3. Allowing bilirubin to reach dangerously high levels before starting treatment. This includes delaying treatment while waiting for lab results, or stopping treatment to perform other diagnostic tests.
  4. Doctors relying solely on the degree of discoloration of a baby’s skin. The only way to determine the bilirubin level is to measure it.
  5. Insufficient concern regarding the risks of severe jaundice in healthy infants.
  6. Constraints due to the costs of medical care, resulting in early discharge with no supervision

Most Causes of Kernicterus Should Never Happen

Jaundice in newborns must be monitored, following recommended guidelines. The failure of physicians and medical staff to adhere to those guidelines, or tendency to make mistakes when confronted with jaundice in newborns, has the potential to result in kernicterus.

Because it is medically preventable, legal and medical professionals alike refer to kernicterus as a “never event.” No baby should develop brain damage from untreated jaundice.

It is up to the hospital professionals and pediatricians to catch it. Bilirubin levels must be taken in order to determine what level of treatment is necessary. When doctors and hospitals do not order the appropriate tests, bilirubin levels spike, and a baby's quality of life is lost forever.

Was Your Child Treated In Time?

At Ratzan Law Group, our sole purpose is to get you and your child the compensation that is rightfully yours. If your child has suffered from brain damage or other birth injury caused by kernicterus, please contact us:

Phone: 855-RLGLAW1 · (855-754-5291) or request a Free Consultation with our kernicterus attorneys online

Read more about symptoms, treatment and causes of kernicterus