Better dumb or better dead?

Steroids used in preemies may kill brain cells – USATODAY.com

n the study, brain cells in mice died after treatments that were given four to 10 days after birth, says study author Kevin Noguchi, a postdoctoral fellow in the university’s department of psychiatry.

He says that danger zone translates to human babies from about 20 weeks in the womb to six weeks after birth.

Noguchi says other studies have shown that the synthetic steroid — called dexamethasone (usually used postnatally) — causes later motor and cognitive problems in children.

Because of that research, in 2002, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended that postnatal glucocorticoid use be halted, but the drugs are still used regularly in mothers at risk for early deliveries.

Noguchi estimates that about 8% of infants born at a weight of 3.3 pounds or less are still given these drugs.

“Thousands of babies a year receive these drugs that can cause damage to the brain,” he says.

What the article doesn’t say, I expect because that would require more familiarity with the subject or even independent reporting rather than just fluffing up a press release, is that the drugs in question are given (among other reasons) to accelerate lung development in preemies so that they can breathe once they’re out of the womb.

If they don’t get the drugs, some of these kids will have longterm diminished lung capacity, some of them will spend additional weeks or months in NICU (at a cost of a couple grand a day) and some of them will die. But better that than being clumsy or losing a few IQ points.

So yes, safer alternatives need to be developed if they can be. But in the meantime, let’s hope this reporter hasn’t helped trigger a small wave of dead infants.

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