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Kernicterus in the 21st century: frequently asked questions


Acute kernicterus remains a clinical emergency and its delayed management represents an easily preventable neonatal brain injury. Yet, practitioners encounter recurrent questions regarding the risk and timing of bilirubin-related neurotoxicity. These include the following: does bilirubin damage the brain of healthy infants? Is there a re-emergence of kernicterus in the United States? Was kernicterus previously prevented in the United States? What was the public health impact of 1994 American Academy of Pediatrics Guidelines? What is the current incidence of kernicterus and severe neonatal hyperbilirubinemia? What is the estimated risk of kernicterus in infants with excessive hyperbilirubinemia? Is there a specific bilirubin threshold total serum bilirubin (TSB) value for neurotoxicity? Are there sequelae of severe or prolonged moderate hyperbilirubinemia in the absence of recognized acute bilirubin encephalopathy? Can we define a bilirubin level that is safe in newborns? We address these questions in the context of available data and evidence, and estimate the current risk of chronic kernicterus is about one in seven in infants with TSB >30 mg per 100 ml (513 μmol l−1).

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Correspondence to V K Bhutani.

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Bhutani, V., Johnson, L. Kernicterus in the 21st century: frequently asked questions. J Perinatol 29 (Suppl 1), S20–S24 (2009).

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