Sunlight treatment may help newborn jaundice

U researchers used filtered sunlight treatments to aid jaundice in Nigerian babies.

Kristina Busch

Nearly 500,000 babies worldwide are diagnosed with neonatal jaundice annually, and of the survivors, about 13 percent suffer from developmental disabilities as 
a result.
 
In an effort to combat the disease, University of Minnesota Pediatrics Associate Professor Dr. Tina Slusher studied how filtering light through canopies would help treat the jaundice in newborn Nigerian infants — a process some experts say could bring doctors another step closer to providing health care in developing countries.
 
Neonatal jaundice occurs when bilirubin, a chemical in the blood cells that the liver breaks down, can’t be dissolved and ends up on the brain, said Mike Pitt, a University pediatrics assistant professor.
 
“All babies make more bilirubin and have a harder time breaking it down than adults do,” Pitt said. “However, the concern is when the amount of bilirubin gets too high and stays too high.”
 
Slusher, who made her first trip to Nigeria in the late 1980s, said she noticed a higher prevalence of jaundice in infants there.
 
“If you actually look at the in-hospital data, severe neonatal jaundice causes about 10 percent of newborn deaths in Nigeria,” she said. “This is unheard of in the [United] States.”
 
Because light can lower levels of bilirubin, researchers created canopies that filtered sunlight and successfully treated jaundiced infants using few resources, Slusher said.
 
The canopies were tested against traditional phototherapy, which treats the condition using blue lamps in a hospital setting, she said. 
 
“We monitored these babies very carefully — checking their temperature every hour or even more often if we needed to,” Slusher said. “We were careful to use wet towels if the baby was getting a little too warm or if it was hot outside.” 
 
According to the study, the canopies were equal in efficiency to blue light phototherapy. 
 
“Many hospitals in Nigeria are actually asking us to bring [the canopies] to them because very few places in Nigeria have 24/7 electricity and intensive phototherapy,” Slusher said. 
 
Health rights advocates for underprivileged peoples look to research like Slusher’s to introduce health care in developing nations, said University Partners in Health ENGAGE President and microbiology and global studies junior Leanne Zhang.
 
The “right to health,” she said, includes the right to not die from preventable disease and the right to have access to medications, doctors and nurses. 
 
“There is such a huge volley of people who need easy access to things that people in the U.S. never even have to worry about,” Zhang said. “To be able to provide new solutions quicker, faster and more inexpensively is hugely beneficial to places that have next to nothing in terms of interventions.”
 
Currently, Slusher and her team are working on the next phase of this study: observing how these sunlight-filtering canopies affect more severe neonatal jaundice, she said. 
 
They are also looking for ways to make the treatment easier for people who can’t monitor the infants as closely, Slusher said.
 
“What’s really exciting about what’s happening in global health is people finding very creative solutions that are actually low-tech, even at an age where technology seems to be the answer to everything,” Pitt said. “But if you don’t have access to Wi-Fi, the infrastructure for that technology or even electricity, now you can dial it back and 
simplify.”