Social workers believe a preventative programme should be introduced to lower the incidents of non-accidental head injuries in babies, with one of the country’s leading consultant paediatricians stating “prevention is better than cure”.
Pat Kelleher, social work team leader at the South Lee social work department in Cork said the issue of babies being injured in the home was “not in the public consciousness”.
Mr Kelleher and Alf Nicholson, a paediatrician in Temple Street Children’s Hospital in Dublin, are among the speakers at a conference this week on non-accidental head injury in babies.
Prof Nicholson said while official figures are not collated, the current rate of incidences is about “one every two or three months” — down from a rate of around one case a month in the peak years of the recession in 2008 and 2009.
“It has dropped significantly since then and we are not sure why,” Prof Nicholson said. He said that it was speculation as to whether the stresses of the recession had played a role in the higher number of cases in those years, although the number of cases in Ireland is still lower than in the UK.
In an article written for the Irish Medical Journal, Prof Nicholson said abusive head trauma — previously called shaken baby syndrome — is a leading cause of death and disability in young children and that its existence was a “settled scientific fact”.
Citing a large amount of international research, he said: “Manifestations can be mild, moderate or life-threatening and in mild cases the diagnosis may be easily missed. Infants may be reinjured after missed diagnosis.”
International statistics indicate that 15%to 27% of infants die as a result of their injury. In addition to head injuries such as skull fractures, injuries such as rib fractures can be present. There is no seasonal pattern although more cases can occur between October and December.
“The most common preceding incident is sustained crying,” said Prof Nicholson. “Exhausted parents and other caregivers may become frustrated and angry when infants in their care cry inconsolably.”
Mr Kelleher said he had dealt with a situation in which a boy suffered catastrophic neurological damage that will require lifelong care, yet no charges were brought.
“Low prosecution rates are a feature of these cases due to what are often difficulties in establishing who is responsible for inflicting the injuries and other complex medical-legal issues,” he said. “
We know there are programmes developed in other countries designed to reduce the number of non-accidental head injuries. These programmes are designed to assist parents in coping better and not lose their ability to regulate their emotions to the point they inflict harm which can happen in a small number of incidences.
“From practice experience, I have also seen babies/infants sustaining fractures in a non-accidental way and I am of the opinion that a preventative programme would also reduce the number of incidents of this.”
The conference, organised by the Bessborough Centre, is on Thursday in Cork.
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