True fact: as a general rule, medical interventions were created to prevent or treat illnesses or injuries.
I mention this because there appears to be an increasing strain of suspicious thinking about why medical providers do the things we do. Concerns either about some ill-defined malign intent or hamfisted incompetence drive some people to refuse interventions with well-established benefits, sometimes with the potential for catastrophic harm.
To wit, a distressing trend by some parents to refuse vitamin K injections for their newborns. This is an absolutely terrible idea.
Vitamin K is found in many foods, including green leafy vegetables, and is also produced naturally by bacteria in our gut. However, newborn babies don’t yet have a population of these bacteria at birth. The vitamin also does not cross the placenta well, and so they are born in a state of relative deficiency. Furthermore, breastmilk is low in the vitamin, no matter what the mother eats. (As one doctor put it, “All the kale in the world won't do it.”)
The reason correcting this deficiency is important is that vitamin K is necessary for the blood to clot properly. Newborns who remain deficient are at risk of internal bleeding. In 2013, four newborns whose parents declined the vitamin shot in Tennessee were admitted to the hospital, three of which for hemorrhages in the brain and one with gastrointestinal bleeding. At the time those cases were reported, it was unclear what kind of developmental damage the brain bleeds had caused. What is clear is that the damage was preventable.
Yet despite the manifest benefit of protecting infants from hemorrhaging, you can still find people on the Internet telling parents not to let their children get the vitamin K shot. This list includes Dr. Oz's chum Joseph Mercola, who cites concerns about psychological trauma, high dosage, and possible infection as reasons not to get the shot.
I assure you that the trauma from a brain bleed is substantially greater than that from a brief one-time injection, and that the dose is correctly calculated to deliver the appropriate benefit. We prevent infection with a complicated process known as “cleaning the skin first,” which has proven to be highly effective.
Parents-to-be, I cannot implore you sincerely enough—do not listen to these people.
The driving forces behind this trend are different but, ultimately, overlap. Some parents who refuse vaccines lump the vitamin K into a blanket “no shots” approach, despite it not being a vaccination (which those children should be getting, anyway). Others—including those anti-shot sources I linked above—fear an increased risk of leukemia based on a single, old study, despite subsequent studies showing no such risk from vitamin K injections. And then there is the fact that the injection simply isn’t “natural.”
I’ve discussed that fascination with “natural” things before. It’s perfectly lovely to want things to be close to nature until one stops to consider that getting infested with scabies or mauled by a grizzly bear are both natural phenomena. The natural outcome for some newborns is to suffer unchecked bleeding due to insufficient clotting factors. Thankfully, there’s an artificial intervention that is safe, cheap, and effective.
In some cases, artificial is better.
It makes me wonder why these parents think we started administering these shots in the first place. Do they imagine we just had a vast surplus of vitamin K lying around, and we figured we might as well inject it into newborns? I know the common answer to any question dealing with refusal of safe and effective medical interventions is fear of the nefarious influence of Big Pharma, but nobody is sitting atop a heap of ill-gotten vitamin K cash.
No, the reason it is recommended that all babies get a vitamin K injection is that some forms of vitamin K deficiency-related bleeding have a mortality rate of 20 percent, with 50 percent of affected infants having intracranial hemorrhage. It is common for survivors to have permanent neurological damage. Though the condition is rare, the availability of an effective preventive measure should make it unheard of in this country.
I am not such a fool as to say that doctors are never wrong or that medical interventions never cause harm. It is perfectly appropriate to question your medical provider about anything that seems risky or uncertain to you, and it’s our job to make sure your questions are answered fully and clearly. It’s an obligation I take very seriously. By all means, ask your doctor to elaborate on the benefits and risks of the vitamin K shot if you have concerns.
But please don’t skip it entirely, and don’t listen to those who tell you that it’s the safest thing to do. That advice is not only ill-informed, it puts your baby pointlessly in danger. The Internet is full of lousy information, and nobody’s newborn should have a stroke because of it.