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Maternal Empowerment - An Underutilized Strategy to Prevent Kernicterus?

[ Vol. 13 , Issue. 3 ]


Richard P. Wennberg*, Jon F. Watchko and Steven M. Shapiro   Pages 210 - 219 ( 10 )


Background: Kernicterus is a common cause of death and morbidity in many Low- Middle-income Countries (LMICs) and still occurs in affluent nations. In either case, the immediate cause is delayed treatment of severe hyperbilirubinemia. In the West, a provider driven “systems approach” has been widely adopted to identify babies at risk prior to discharge from birthing centers with follow up monitoring based on the serum bilirubin level at time of discharge. The situation is more complicated in regions of the world where kernicterus is endemic, especially in LMICs where Glucose-6-phosphate Dehydrogenase Deficiency (G6PDd) is common and the system of jaundice management is often fragmented.

Objective: To examine reasons for errors in jaundice management leading to kernicterus and the potential beneficial role of enlisting more parental participation in management decisions.

Method: We searched world literature related to pitfalls in jaundice management including deficiencies in providers’ and parents’ knowledge and behavior. Perspectives from mothers of children with kernicterus supplemented the literature review.

Result: System failures contributing to kernicterus in affluent countries include a lack of follow up planning, bad advice by providers, and a delay in care seeking by parents. In many LMICs, the majority of births occur at home with unskilled attendants. Traditional practices potentiate hemolysis in G6PDd babies. The danger of severe jaundice is frequently underestimated both by parents and care providers, and cultural and economic barriers as well as ineffective therapies delay care seeking. The failure to provide parents information about identifying severe jaundice and knowledge about the risks and treatment of hyperbilirubinemia has contributed to delayed treatment in both affluent and low-middle-income countries. A recent non-randomized clinical trial, supports teaching all parents skills to monitor jaundice, signs of early neurotoxicity, the importance of breast feeding, avoidance of ineffective or dangerous practices, and when/where to seek help.

Conclusion: Empowering parents allow them to participate more fully in care decisions and to confront obstacles to care when provider services fail.


Maternal empowerment, education, acute bilirubin encephalopathy, kernicterus, glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase deficiency.


Department of Pediatrics, University of Washington School of Medicine, Seattle, Washington, Division of Newborn Medicine, Department of Pediatrics, University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Division of Child Neurology, Department of Pediatrics, Children’s Mercy Hospital, Kansas City, Missouri

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