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Healthy Life: Saving Babies from NEC

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BACKGROUND: Approximately 1 in 2,000 to 4,000 babies are born affected by necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC). A disease that mostly affects premature infants, NEC causes inflammation and infection, which can lead to the destruction of the bowels. It is the most common and serious gastrointestinal disorder that premature infants experience. This disorder usually occurs within the first two weeks of life after milk feeding has begun.

CAUSES AND SYMPTOMS: Although the specific causes of NEC are unknown, the theory is that because infants' intestinal tissue is underdeveloped, the tissue is weakened by too little oxygen or blood flow, so when feeding is started, the added stress allows bacteria in the intestines to invade and damage the intestinal tissue wall. The damage may be extensive or only affect a small portion of the intestines. After the bacteria begin to spread, the infant is unable to eat as the bacteria causes them to get sick. If the bacteria are able to invade the bloodstream, the infant can experience imbalances of minerals in the blood. In severe cases, a hole may develop in the intestines, which will allow bacteria to leak into the abdomen and cause life-threatening infections that can have serious complications.

NEW NEC RESEARCH: NEC is a serious disease with a death rate of about 25 percent. Currently, researchers are investigating the ontogeny of salivary epidermal growth factor (sEGF) in premature infants to determine the correlation to the development of NEC. Investigators found that there is a positive relation between the two, and patterns of sEGF levels over the first two weeks of life were related to the development of NEC in infants with very low birth weight.

Judy Martin
Associate Director Media Relations
Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis
(314) 286-0105

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