February 4, 2013, 3:42 pm 54 Comments
By CATHERINE SAINT LOUIS
Six weeks after Jack Mahoney was born prematurely on Feb. 3, 2011, the neonatal staff at WakeMed Hospital in Raleigh, N.C., noticed that his heart rate slowed slightly when he ate. They figured he was having difficulty feeding, and they added a thickener to help.
When Jack was discharged, his parents were given the thickener, SimplyThick, to mix into his formula. Two weeks later, Jack was back in the hospital, with a swollen belly and in inconsolable pain. By then, most of his small intestine had stopped working. He died soon after, at 66 days old.
A month later, the Food and Drug Administration issued a caution that SimplyThick should not be fed to premature infants because it may cause necrotizing enterocolitis, or NEC, a life-threatening condition that damages intestinal tissue.
Experts do not know how the product may be linked to the condition, but Jack is not the only child to die after receiving SimplyThick. An F.D.A. investigation of 84 cases, published in The Journal of Pediatrics in 2012, found a “distinct illness pattern” in 22 instances that suggested a possible link between SimplyThick and NEC. Seven deaths were cited; 14 infants required surgery.
Last September, after more adverse events were reported, the F.D.A. warned that the thickener should not be given to any infants. But the fact that SimplyThick was widely used at all in neonatal intensive care units has spawned a spate of lawsuits and raised questions about regulatory oversight of food additives for infants.
SimplyThick is made from xanthan gum, a widely-used food additive on the F.D.A.’s list of substances “generally recognized as safe.” SimplyThick is classified as a food and the F.D.A. did not assess it for safety.
Most infants who took SimplyThick did not fall ill, and NEC is not uncommon in premature infants. But most who develop NEC do so while still in the hospital. Some premature infants given SimplyThick developed NEC later than usual, a few after they went home, a pattern the F.D.A. found unusually worrisome.
Even now it is not known how the thickener might have contributed to the infant deaths. One possibility is that xanthan gum itself is not suitable for the fragile digestive systems of newborns. The intestines of premature babies are “much more likely to have bacterial overgrowth” than adults’, said Dr. Jeffrey Pietz, the chief of newborn medicine at Children’s Hospital Central California in Madera.
“You try not to put anything in a baby’s intestine that’s not natural.” If you do, he added, “you’ve got to have a good reason.”
A second possibility is that batches of the thickener were contaminated with harmful bacteria. In late May 2011, the F.D.A. inspected the plants that make SimplyThick and found violations at one in Stone Mountain, Ga., including a failure to “thermally process” the product to destroy bacteria of a “public health significance.”
The company, Thermo Pac, voluntarily withdrew certain batches. But it appears some children may have ingested potentially contaminated batches.