Infant Formula Linked to Life-Threatening Intestinal Issue
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Baby formula is connected to a severe gastrointestinal condition known as necrotizing enterocolitis or NEC. This medical issue, typically diagnosed in premature babies, can lead to serious health consequences and death.
What is NEC?
NEC is a devastating gut disease that affects about one in ten premature infants, according to the Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles. The condition typically develops within the first two weeks after premature birth. The most common form of death in hospitalized premature infants more than two weeks old, NEC rarely occurs before the infant is fed formula.
Intestinal Damage from NEC
In premature infants who have immature lungs and intestines, any decrease in oxygen to the intestines damages the lining of the intestinal wall. Due to this damage, bacteria outside the intestine can cause local infection and inflammation, leading to injury and death of intestinal tissue.
Infection can also cause perforation or cracks in the bowel. If this occurs, bacteria can enter the baby’s bloodstream, leading to severe illness, complications, and potentially death.
Formula and NEC
Studies link the use of cow-based formula instead of breast milk to an increased risk of NEC. Preterm infants who receive breast milk instead of the formula are six to ten times less likely to develop NEC, according to a paper published in Frontiers in Pediatrics, Neonatology.
Manufacturers have not included warning labels or guidelines on cow-based formulas.
Who is at Risk for NEC?
NEC is relatively rare, occurring in just one in every 2,000 to 4,000 births. It is most common in:
- Premature or preterm infants
- Infants with low birth weights (less than 3.25 pounds
- Formula-fed infants (orally or by tube)
NEC is the most common cause of death among preterm, low-weight infants requiring surgery, with a mortality rate between 10 to 50 percent.
For patients with the most severe form of NEC, the mortality rate is nearly 100 percent. NEC is also the leading cause of gastrointestinal emergency surgeries. Infants who require surgery often have a poor prognosis.
Scarring or narrowing of the bowel from NEC can lead to obstruction or blockage. Other possible consequences include malabsorption or an inability to absorb nutrients, more common in children who require surgery to remove a large portion of the intestine.
In some cases, infants need a bowel transplant to survive. Survivors of NEC can also develop long-term neurological complications.