Kernicterus is a serious birth injury that is preventable and is often caused by medical personnel failing to check infants for high levels of bilirubin. Kernicterus is a dysfunction of the brain caused by hyperbilirubinemia, an excess of bilirubin. Bilirubin, a yellow by-product of normal recycling of red blood cells, is excreted in urine or bile. Elevated levels of bilirubin may indicate jaundice or kernicterus.
Kernicterus occurs when bilirubin accumulates in the brain, potentially causing serious neurological damage and even death. Newborn infants are especially vulnerable to this type of brain damage because it is believed that the barrier between the blood and the brain is not fully functional, making it easier for bilirubin to enter the brain. In addition, there is a rapid breakdown of fetal red blood cells immediately before birth, to be replaced by adult red blood cells, which causes the release of a large amount of bilirubin. In addition, newborn infants do not eliminate bilirubin in the normal way.
Because of the high risk of elevated bilirubin levels in newborn infants, resulting in jaundice or kernicterus, testing is essential. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), symptoms of jaundice can be found in at least 60 percent of babies. Unfortunately, medical personnel often fail to properly test for high bilirubin levels, or fail to diagnose and treat jaundice or kernicterus. When this negligence results in harm to the infant, a medical malpractice lawsuit is often necessary to gain compensation for the injury.