Dr. Allen Cherer | Neonatal Care & Pediatrics

Dr. Allen Cherer is a neonatal care expert with over 30 years of medical accomplishments to his name.

Category: Newborns

Congenital Hypothyroidism and Newborn Screening

Congenital Hypothyroidism and Newborn Screening

Newborn screening for Congenital Hypothyroidism (CH) is a major public health achievement. Thyroid hormone is essential for the maturation of brain function and somatic growth, and its deficiency early in life can lead to mental retardation. For the fetus, maternal thyroid status is important during the first half of gestation; thereafter, the fetus’  hypothalamus-pituitary-thyroid axis is functional in the normal situation. For the hypothyroid newborn, it is well documented that provision of thyroid hormone is critical during the first weeks of life to avoid severe intellectual impairment. Notably, congenital hypothyroidism is considered one of the most common preventable causes  of mental retardation.

Studies showed that affected newborns were rarely identified during the first months of life and were often missed until 1-3 years of age. Congenital hypothyroidism  was found to be  an ideal candidate with the introduction of dried blood newborn screening by Dussault in Canada. With the development of increasingly sensitive assays to measure thyroid hormone (T4) and thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH) using a dried blood spot (DBS), newborn screening programs have developed throughout much of the world. In the 1980s, the incidence of CH in the United States was estimated to be 1:3000-1:4000. More recently, screening programs have reported an increased incidence of 1:1400-1:2800, most probably due to changes in screening strategies and the identification of milder cases.

Typically, newborn screening requires a heel stick blood specimen obtained at 48-72 hrs of life prior to an infant’s discharge from the hospital. Most current assays measure TSH alone as an indicator of thyroid function.  Results above established cutoff levels generally signify thyroid gland dysfunction and indicate further testing. Although most helpful in early identification of term newborns with anatomic or functional thyroid gland abnormalities, the screening does miss a percentage of newborns, for example those with central hypothyroidism due to hypothalamic-pituitary failure and the increasingly larger group of preterm  infants with congenital hypothyroidism who demonstrate delayed elevations in TSH. Numerous questions remain regarding the optimal timing of follow up laboratory studies and even treatment of certain types of newborn thyroid dysfunction.Nevertheless, newborn screening has proved invaluable for the great number of affected newborns.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends the measurement of TSH in all newborns with the goal that all infants with CH be identified by 2 weeks of age and that effective treatment with thyroid hormone replacement be started such that serum TSH levels less than 5 mIU/L be achieved within 4 weeks of diagnosis. Unfortunately, despite the significant successes following early identification and treatment of newborns with CH, obstacles persist in reaching the Academy’s goals. Screening programs continue to be plagued with the practical problems of screening all newborns, particularly those discharged home early who are lost to recall or lost to follow up altogether.  In addition, dried blood specimens are collected or processed improperly. Delays occur with recall of infants with abnormal results and with appropriate referrals for definitive treatment and management. A recent study conducted in Utah and reported at the 86th Annual Meeting of the American Thyroid Association highlights some of the problems which currently exist. After reviewing the TSH assays of 4394 children under 2 years of age, 48% of initial samples with elevated  levels (>20 mIU/L) were obtained after  the first 2 weeks of life, 15% of the initial abnormal TSH assays were not retested, and only 34% of those infants with initial elevated TSH assays achieved the goal of TSH < 5 mIU/L within 28 days of the initial assay.

The final message is that it is not enough to rely on the known efficacy of newborn screening for congenital hypothyroidism, but greater vigilance must be exercised to maximize its benefits in the lives of children.

Ehrenkranz J, Butler A, Snow G, Bach P. oral Abstract 19. The Diagnosis and Treatment of Congenital Hypothyroidism in Utah 2006-2015. Presented at: American Thyroid Association Annual Meeting; September 21-25, 2016; Denver, Colorado

Providing Care for Drug-exposed Newborns: Time for the Next Step

During the years 1999-2013, the amount of prescription opioids dispensed in the United States nearly quadrupled, and since 2000, it is estimated that opioid use during pregnancy has tripled. Notably, the tragic consequences of the extreme availability of such drugs include abuse, physical dependence, and increasingly, death through inadvertent overdose.

newborn-boy-sleepingIn addition, for the individual pregnant woman, a minimum of two lives is affected: her own and that of her unborn child. The prevalence of prenatally exposed newborns to one or more illicit drugs approximates 6%. Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS) refers to the withdrawal symptoms from physical dependence experienced by the newborn exposed during pregnancy generally to illicit drugs, prescribed drugs, or to those opioids employed in medication-assisted treatment of maternal opioid addiction.

Withdrawal symptoms can vary markedly in terms of time of onset and severity but typically manifest as tremulousness, agitation, sleeplessness, and poor feeding. NAS increased threefold from 2000-2009 and frequently requires prolonged newborn hospitalization. It has been reported that aggregate hospital charges for NAS increased from 732 million dollars to 1.5 billion dollars with approximately 80% attributed to state Medicaid programs in 2012. Clearly, NAS is a costly public health problem resulting in significant human suffering and expense.

Traditionally, infants who are known to be at risk for NAS have been monitored in the postpartum unit after birth for at least 96 hours and withdrawal symptoms scored based on the Finnegan Scale developed in the mid 1970’s. Typically, if the scores exceed certain values, the newborn is admitted to a Special Care Unit where pharmacologic treatment is frequently started. As withdrawal symptoms subside, dosing is gradually tapered and ultimately stopped. The newborn is observed off medication and monitored for recurrence of disabling withdrawal symptoms. The entire process can generally result in a prolonged Special Care Unit hospital stay of 2-10 weeks.

With the seemingly overnight explosion in the number of newborns demonstrating withdrawal symptoms in the early 2000’s, medical caregivers and hospitals were caught off-guard. On short notice, staff addiction education, medication and weaning protocols, general care policies, and hospital space allocation were required. After a number of years of concerted, collaborative work, much has been learned and achieved in improving the care of the substance-exposed infant.

Nevertheless, pharmacologic treatment continues to require prolonged hospital stays, often in costly Special Care Units. In addition, it effectively excludes full participation by the eventual sole primary caregivers, ideally the parents. It is with these disturbing issues in mind that it is refreshing to note the work and studies over the past several years to further optimize the care provided to infants with NAS and their families.

One of the earlier studies to suggest the therapeutic benefits of a different approach to caring for the drug-exposed infant was that of Abrahams et al. published in the Canadian Family Physician in 2007. During the same period of frenzy involving inpatient hospital transfers, guaranteeing interobserver scoring reliability, pharmacologic treatment protocols, and nursing care directives, the Canadian group with extensive previous experience in addiction medicine reported in a retrospective cohort study the benefits of a rooming-in policy whereby infants remained with their mothers as primary caretakers.

They noted that infants who roomed-in were less likely to require pharmacologic therapy for withdrawal and more likely to be discharged to mother’s care compared to infant’s who received standard nursery care. Subsequently, other retrospective cohort studies both in Europe and the United States demonstrated equally beneficial effects of rooming-in regarding decreased requirement for pharmacologic therapy and decreased duration of hospital stay.

Most recently, the results of a quality collaborative project from the Children’s Hospital at Dartmouth Hitchcock were described in the May, 2016 Pediatrics and demonstrated the beneficial effects of combined standardized protocols and family-centered care in the management of the drug-exposed infant. Over time, the project safely reduced the number of infants requiring pharmacologic therapy, average length of stay, and overall hospital costs.

Among others, key drivers to success were prenatal education of family caregivers including expressed expectation that they would provide meaningful rooming-in care, baby-centered NAS scoring including on demand feeding schedules, pharmacologic therapy when necessary with dosing adjustment based on overall infant condition rather than solely Finnegan score and determined by a consistent team, and an infant “snuggler” volunteer program to assist families when times required their absence.

Overall, the project demonstrated that despite many practical obstacles to providing high quality care for drug-exposed newborns and their families in the hospital setting, where there’s a will, there’s a way.

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