When a baby's oxygen supply is cut off during delivery or just after birth, it can result in a condition called birth asphyxia. Without prompt and effective treatment, birth asphyxia may lead to serious and potentially lifelong complications, including cerebral palsy, vision problems, developmental disabilities and organ damage. In some cases, birth asphyxia can be fatal.

When birth asphyxia occurs, restoring the newborn's oxygen supply as quickly as possible is critical. However, additional measures are often necessary to prevent further harm from occurring. This is because the initial oxygen deprivation causes the baby's cells to release toxins into the bloodstream, thus setting off a series of cascading effects that can result in continued cell death and neurological damage for days or even weeks after the flow of oxygen has been restored.

Using cold to stop brain cell death

Research out of Oxford University and Imperial College London shows promising results in the use of cooling to treat birth asphyxia. By inducing hypothermia in oxygen-deprived newborns, it may be possible to interrupt the process of brain cell death that so often leads to neurological damage and lasting complications.

The study, which was published in the New England Journal of Medicine, was the largest of its kind to date. It followed 325 newborn infants who had been deprived of oxygen at birth. Within hours after birth, the babies were randomly divided into two groups - one of which received standard care, the other of which received hypothermia treatment in addition to standard care. Infants in the hypothermia test group had their body temperatures reduced to about 92 degrees Fahrenheit for 72 hours.

By comparing their test results later in life, the researchers found that infants who were deprived of oxygen at birth were more likely to demonstrate normal intelligence than those who were not cooled, and were less at risk for cerebral palsy and other moderate to severe disabilities. When tested at ages six or seven, nearly 52 percent of the children given hypothermia treatments displayed normal IQs; among those who were not treated with hypothermia, just over 39 percent had IQs in the normal range for their age. As a group, the cooled infants also performed better in tests of motor functioning than those who were not cooled.

Findings may offer new hope for newborns

Earlier research had shown similarly improved outcomes at 18 months, but it was unclear whether those effects were temporary. Because cooling treatments are relatively simple and inexpensive for hospitals to administer, they could eventually become integrated into the standard of care for treatment of birth asphyxia.

If your son or daughter has suffered complications as a result of oxygen deprivation during birth, financial compensation may be available to help offset the cost of medical care, rehabilitation and other related losses. Call the Medical Malpractice firm of Linnan & Associates to learn more about the options that are available to help you protect your child's rights and interests. Linnan & Associates is located at 150 State Street Suite 504, Albany, NY.