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The anti-vaccination movement might be behind a new disturbing trend of parents refusing a lifesaving vitamin injection for their newborns.
Late last year, doctors at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., began diagnosing several infants with a rare bleeding disorder caused by a vitamin K deficiency that affects 1 in 100,000 babies. By May, they had seen seven cases in eight months, as reported by The Tennessean. The relative spike in occurrences, they soon discovered, was related to the parents' refusal of a simple shot given right after birth.
Newborns are naturally deficient in vitamin K, the vitamin that causes blood to coagulate. Mothers do not pass enough vitamin K to their child in the womb, nor is there a sufficient amount in breast milk. The lack of this vital nutrient increases the risk of vitamin K deficiency bleeding (VKDB), a condition that causes internal bleeding and can lead to brain damage and death.
VKDB is rare, thanks in large part to the fact that it is easy to prevent. A simple vitamin K shot in the leg within 24 hours after birth will protect infants from the bleeding disorder. As Chris Mooney noted in an article for Mother Jones, the shot has been in regular use since 1961, when the American Academy of Pediatrics first recommended it. Yet a growing number of parents are refusing the shot for their newborns.
Dr. Robert Sidonio, a Vanderbilt pediatrician who has been tracking their VKDB cases, believes the increase in parents deciding against the vitamin K shot is part of the general anti-vaccine movement. As for who is refusing vitamin K for their babies, "The group includes people who are fairly liberal and those with strong religious beliefs," Sidonio told Yahoo Health. "It's not purely a religious objection like most people think. And unfortunately, there are a lot of bad websites that are spreading misinformation."
To further complicate things, the vitamin K shot has become a victim of its own success. "This shot is a casualty of perfect public-health policy," said Sidonio. "It's very inexpensive, widely used, and highly effective. And because there are rarely any cases [of VKDB], parents had never heard of it, so people begin to wonder why they should have the shot at all."
Sidonio said that there have been no new VKDB cases at Vanderbilt's hospital since May thanks to the local media coverage and better communication between healthcare providers and families. Though he added that he's heard about other VKDB cases in St. Louis and Washington state. "The problem is that there isn't a national tracking system in the United States, so it's difficult to keep tabs on what's happening elsewhere," Sidonio explained.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that infants who do not receive the shot are 81 times more likely to develop VKDB than those who receive the shot. The risk still remains low for those who do not get the shot, approximately 4 to 7 infants out of 100,000.
The CDC has also asked parents to explain why they were refusing the shot. The reasons listed were fear of increased leukemia risk, a desire to minimize their infant's exposure to toxins, and the impression that the shot isn't effective. The report also noted that none of the parents were aware of the VKDB risks when they turned down the shot, with "most parents learning about the possibility of late VKDB only after their infants developed the condition."
The leukemia fear was sparked by a study that proposed a link between vitamin K and the childhood cancer. "Unfortunately, the subsequent studies that came out proving there was absolutely no link to leukemia didn't make the Internet rounds," said Sidonio. "So people rely on the false information that got more publicity."
The bottom line, he added, is that a mother can't give her child enough vitamin K through breast milk alone, and there are no other reliable alternatives. "We know no matter how healthy the diet, it's not enough to get the vitamin K to an effective level," he said. "And the oral vitamin K options that we have in the United States are not regulated or FDA approved. It's clear that the shot is the only reliable option."