Sunshine solves a life-threatening newborn health problem — with a little help from Stanford experts
on September 16th, 2015 1 Comment
When pediatrician Tina Slusher, MD, began caring for newborns in Nigeria in 1989, she saw two big threats to the babies’ health: severe jaundice and tetanus.
“I thought, ‘Tetanus will go away with immunization, but nobody really seems to understand this jaundice problem,'” Slusher, a global pediatrics expert at the University of Minnesota, told me recently. In developing countries, well over 150,000 babies a year currently die or suffer severe brain damage from jaundice. “They still aren’t getting treated,” Slusher says.
But now, thanks to Slusher and her colleagues, that is set to change. She is the lead author on a scientific paper in the New England Journal of Medicine that evaluated a low-tech, inexpensive method for treating jaundice with filtered sunlight. The technology was conceived and built at Stanford, by a team led by neonatal jaundice expert David Stevenson, MD.
Newborn jaundice is caused by a delay after birth in development of the baby’s ability to metabolize compounds released in the breakdown of red blood cells. In the U.S. and other developed countries, most cases are treated with phototherapy. But putting a baby under a blue-light-emitting lamp isn’t feasible in places that lack steady electricity. The team members, who also included doctors and researchers at the Massey Street Children’s Hospital in Lagos, Nigeria, wondered if they could safely use filtered sunshine instead.
From our press release about the new study:
Some mothers and babies sat under outdoor canopies that filtered out harmful wavelengths from sunlight, but still allowed jaundice-treating blue wavelengths to reach the babies’ skin. The filtered-sunlight treatment was as safe and effective as the blue-light lamps traditionally used to treat infant jaundice.
“This research has the potential for global impact,” said the study’s senior author, David Stevenson, MD, the Harold K. Faber Professor in Pediatrics and senior associate dean for maternal and child health at Stanford. “All babies can get jaundice. In settings with no access to modern devices, we’ve shown we can use something that’s available all around the planet — sunlight — to treat this dangerous condition.” Stevenson also directs the Johnson Center for Pregnancy and Newborn Services at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital Stanford.