About six out of 10 children get jaundice when they are born. This usually harmless condition - seen two to four days after birth - is characterised by a yellow appearance of the eyes and skin. Ideally, it should disappear within the first three weeks but if not resolved by then, there could be underlying conditions contributing to it.
Incompatibility of a mother and her baby’s blood.
Infants who are not breastfeeding well are also likely to be affected.
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How jaundice happens
Jaundice occurs when the body has excess bilirubin, a yellow component of the red blood cells. Bilirubin is released during the normal breakdown of red blood cells, when this happens, the liver is supposed to filter it out of the bloodstream.
During pregnancy, it is the mother’s liver that will do this job for the foetus. Sometimes a newborn’s liver may not break down bilirubin as quickly as their body makes it, therefore their body gets a yellow-like colouration when the component accumulates in the blood.
High levels of bilirubin in a baby’s blood can put the baby at risk of:
· Cerebral palsy
· Brain damage
How is it treated?
Frequent feedings (about eight to 12 times a day) may just be enough to help an infant pass bilirubin through their bodies. Severe cases may require transfusion where a baby receives small amounts of blood from a donor. However, phototherapy is the most common method known to treat jaundice.
Phototherapy involves placing a baby in supine position on a special bed under a blue spectrum light while wearing only a diaper and with their eyes covered with an eye mask or shield. The baby has to be breastfed and repositioned after every three hours while their vitals are being monitored. Medics also have to check the total serum bilirubin (TSB) levels of babies who are in phototherapy to determine the intensity of the sessions among other factors. Its effectiveness depends on the ability of the body to convert bilirubin to water soluble products.
Recent studies have shown that the sun - the natural source of blue light - can effectively be used for phototherapy in treating infant jaundice. Sunlight filtered through plastic films has through clinical trials done in Nigeria been found to be equally safe and effective in treating infant jaundice.
In Kenya, clinical trials are now being done at the Nyeri County Referral Hospital with similar programmes set to start in Bungoma and Kakamega counties. “These are not enough though, newborn health is quite neglected in the country,” said a medic who did not want to be named.
This new technique will come as a relief to caregivers especially in rural settings, where access to artificial sources of blue light is a challenge.