Sunday, 24 October 2010

SIDS: Nort Carolina, causes of death not pursued

N.C. infants die every three to four days, on average, with little understanding of what killed them, you'd think the response would be a lot more urgent and considerably more dramatic.
A team of Observer reporters and editors this summer found that medical examiners often classify N.C. children's deaths as sudden infant death syndrome despite possible unsafe sleep conditions and other questions surrounding their deaths. That frequent diagnosis was likely masking the real cause: suffocation in pillows and blankets or even under an adult. The widespread use of that diagnosis slowed the education of parents about safe sleep habits. Law enforcement agents say a finding of SIDS prevents them from prosecuting neglect or other crimes.
The Observer series looked at 554 SIDS autopies over five years and found that authorities frequently fail to investigate the deaths thoroughly. Only about 25 babies, or five percent, were apparently sleeping safely, on their backs in their own cribs without dangerous bedding.
The diagnosis matters, because too-frequent SIDS findings make it harder to educate parents about safe sleeping. And that means we're not preventing as many deaths as we might.
The Observer series told the story of Autumn Brown, who died Nov. 20, 2007, at the age of 10 weeks in Alamance County. Her death was ruled SIDS, but her grandfather thinks she may have been smothered accidentally.
Makayla Peek was one month old when she died in Gaston County three years ago. Her death was also declared SIDS despite suspicions of foul play.
It's cases like these a legislative task force now hopes to minimize with changes in the state's response to child deaths.
Among the changes that the N.C. Child Fatality Task Force, chief medical examiner Deborah Radisch and others are examining:
All new law enforcement officers would be required to go through specialized training on child death scene investigations.
The state would hire trained investigators for regional offices, so all death scenes can be investigated properly.
Police would be urged to use a six-page, state-issued checklist at death scenes, which is now optional.
Those are important, and fine as far as they go. But why train only new law enforcement officers, and not all current ones? And task force co-chair Tom Vitaglione and N.C. Health Director Jeffrey Engel say state budget woes may delay the hiring of trained investigators for regional offices, something we obviously need. Also, why not require police officers to use the state-issued checklist, instead of just encouraging them to?
As long as meticulous investigations of child death scenes are optional, questions will loom about how N.C. infants are dying. And without information, parents and authorities can't address the problem.
We understand times are beyond tight for the state budget. We also know that taking basic steps that will help save babies' lives is money well spent.

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