The first few weeks of a baby’s life are always overwhelming, and much more so for the parents of children who were born with medical troubles of their own. Premature babies, or preemies, tend to be vulnerable to illnesses that other newborns would not encounter. Preemies and their families often have to spend time in the NICU before going home, building up their strength. Other families in the NICU may have full-term babies facing ailments just as dire. The last thing any of these parents would want to believe is that their delicate newborn was given something that made them even sicker.
Sadly, many American families have had to face just this situation. Some have even lost their children. Others have treated their child’s chronic illness for years after a narrow recovery from NEC.
What Is NEC and What Can Cause It?
Necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC) happens when part of the intestine dies, leading to the death of more intestinal tissue. Intestines are a key part of human digestion, so when infants suffer intestinal problems, they cannot process food the way they need to. Their waste builds up inside them, and the damaged intestine cannot hold it for long.
Bacteria can escape into the bloodstream, leading to deadly infections like peritonitis or sepsis. According to the National Library of Medicine, NEC can have a mortality rate of up to 40%.
Early treatment has the best results. Even so, recovery may leave the child with medical problems for years or even a lifetime, such as short bowel syndrome after surgical removal of destroyed intestinal tissue.
The exact cause of NEC is unknown. What we do know is that there are serious risk factors:
- Injury to the intestine
- Restricted blood flow to the intestine
- Contagious infections, viral or bacterial
Some of these risks are out of our control. But there is another major risk factor for NEC that we can control: what we feed to infants.
Infant Formula and NEC
Medical researchers have raised concerns about infant formula’s role in NEC since 1990. According to that study, premature babies fed only formula were six to ten times more likely to develop NEC than babies fed only breast milk.
More and more research has made the connection, and even in the past few years, doctors have discovered more evidence to strengthen the link between NEC in sick infants and formula feeding, particularly the use of cow’s milk. Yet manufacturers still presented the formula as safe for premature babies, and many hospitals provided it to new parents.
What Can Parents Do?
Families in America face enormous medical bills when any child is sick, and much more so for a fragile premature infant. The costs of NEC—financial and human—do not end when the illness does. But if this has happened to your child, you do have options.
Throughout the country, families are suing Abbott Laboratories and Mead Johnson, the makers of Similac and Enfamil. Some have pursued individual litigation; some have joined with other plaintiffs in a mass tort lawsuit (multi-district litigation).
To decide your best course of action, you will need to talk to an attorney and lay out exactly what happened and when. If your formula-fed child was not formally diagnosed with NEC but suffered some of its debilitating symptoms, such as bloody stools and difficulty feeding, you can still speak to an attorney about your child’s experience, so that they can determine if you might have a claim.
A personal injury claim for damages due to a case of NEC could include:
- Medical bills
- Rehabilitation costs
- Pain and suffering
- Lost wages, if applicable
- Punitive damages, if the court finds that the defendant’s conduct was grossly negligent or malicious
A wrongful death claim would include funeral costs and loss of companionship.
What your family could recover depends on where you live and where your child’s injury took place. In Texas, there are limitations (damage caps) on what a plaintiff can recover in medical malpractice actions, but this may not apply to the cause of action in an NEC lawsuit. It is also important to keep the statute of limitations in mind. A Texas child who survived NEC after receiving baby formula would have until their 14th or 18th birthday to file a lawsuit, depending on the type of claim. However, some tort claims have a statute of limitations of only two years, so it is important to speak to a lawyer as soon as you believe you may have a claim.
Our Dallas and Houston offices are ready to speak to you about your family’s story. Call today, and let us help you decide what your next move will be.