According to a new recommendation from the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, there is insufficient evidence to assess the balance of benefits and harms of screening infants for hyperbilirubinemia to prevent chronic bilirubin encephalopathy. Hyperbilirubinemia is a condition marked by a high level of bilirubin in the blood, which is often apparent as yellow-colored skin and eyes (jaundice). This recommendation and the accompanying summary of evidence will appear in the October issue of Pediatrics.
About 60 percent of all infants have jaundice, and it generally clears up without any medical treatment. Some infants are more likely to have severe jaundice and higher bilirubin levels than others. In some infants, hyperbilirubinemia may lead to chronic bilirubin encephalopathy, a rare but devastating neurological condition. The brain damage associated with chronic bilirubin encephalopathy, or kernicterus, may result in cerebral palsy, auditory processing problems, gaze and vision abnormalities, and cognitive problems. The number of children who develop chronic bilirubin encephalopathy is unknown and difficult to determine.
"There is inadequate evidence that screening all full-term and near-term infants for elevated bilirubin leads to improved health outcomes," said Task Force Chair Ned Calonge, M.D., who is also chief medical officer for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. "More research is necessary to understand how often chronic bilirubin encephalopathy occurs, its risk factors, and whether screening is associated with a reduction in chronic bilirubin encephalopathy."
There is evidence that screening using risk factor assessment or bilirubin level measurement can identify infants at risk of developing hyperbilirubinemia, but there is no known screening test that will reliably identify all infants at risk of developing chronic bilirubin encephalopathy.