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At last: treatment for babies starved of oxygen at birth

For the first time, a possible treatment for brain-damaged babies or babies who lacked oxygen at birth has emerged.

The treatment is termed therapeutic cooling and it involves cooling the newborn to 32 degrees centigrade for 72 hours as soon as possible after birth.

"This is a very effective treatment and one in four or five of babies treated in this fashion will be normal," Prof John Murphy, a consultant paediatrician in Dublin, said.

"We have had some great results with this treatment in the past two to three years. However, the problem is this treatment must be instituted within six hours of birth.

"We get people to turn off the heaters and keep the babies cold. Then we collect the babies and keep them cool during transport.

"This is the opposite of what one might think. It is not a good idea to wrap these babies up when they have suffered asphyxia," he explained.

He was outlining to the Oireachtas Committee on Health and Children how health services can improve the care and treatment of premature babies.

"We have had some wonderful success stories in the past two years with therapeutic cooling, and one in four or five of babies who would have gone on to have significant cerebral palsy are normal.

"This treatment can only improve – now we have the first breakthrough in preventing this. Oddly enough, the damage from lack of oxygen to the brain does not happen immediately, but over a period of time and if we get within that window, we have the opportunity to reverse the damage.

"The committee can, therefore, see why we are so keen to be able to transport patients and teach and train people around the country not to put on the radiant heaters but to keep these babies cool so that we can collect them and transport them cold as quickly as possible."

He suggested we have a great opportunity for a world-class neonatal service because Ireland is a small country and "we have great roads and good-quality hospitals around the country with high standards".

Currently, the neonatal transport system to take newborns from one unit to another operates from 9-5.

"However, no service is available after 5pm. The service includes a dedicated ambulance and specially trained doctors and nurses, who collect babies from any unit in the country and take them to whatever facility is selected for the treatment they require," Prof Murphy added.

"This service needs to be developed further. We would like to have a 24/7 service. Babies are regularly born outside of office hours, with some born in the middle of the night and requiring transfer by a dedicated team of staff.

"During our visit to hospitals around the country, the need for a 24/7 service was highlighted. My main priority is to make this happen. A 24/7 transport service would be life saving," he stressed.

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