UNC, Duke Lead Shaken Baby Project, First in U.S.

Child-abuse prevention experts from UNC’s Injury Prevention Research Center and its medical school are teaming with Duke University’s medical center to undertake a $7 million statewide shaken baby prevention project.

The project, called the largest and most comprehensive in the country, is designed to reach the parents of the approximately 125,000 babies born each year in North Carolina with the goal of significantly reducing the number of deaths and serious injuries that occur when frustrated caregivers shake crying babies.

“In a baseline survey of parents of children younger than 2 years old in North Carolina, we found that more than 2,000 of these children are shaken, to a greater or lesser extent, by a caregiver each year and that serious injuries result for some,” said Dr. Desmond Runyan, a professor of social medicine and pediatrics at UNC and principal investigator for the project.

He added that “only about 40 of these children are admitted to a hospital intensive care unit. Of those, 10 die and the other 27 suffer serious long-term health problems, such as mental retardation, blindness or cerebral palsy as a result,” Runyan said. “A lot more children are shaken who are not hospitalized but may have mental retardation or learning disabilities later. This shows the need for, and potential benefits of, preventing shaking.”

The project is being funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation and The Duke Endowment. It is led by a coalition of stakeholders from the National Center for Shaken Baby Syndrome, University of British Columbia and state and county agencies, service providers and nonprofit organizations.

State Sen. William Purcell ’56 (MD) and the N.C. Child Fatality Task Force announced the project on Tuesday.

“As a pediatrician and a long-standing member of the N.C. Child Fatality Task Force, I know how devastating shaking a baby can be — to the infant and to the family.” Purcell said. “This project will share very important information that all parents can use about normal infant crying and how to manage that crying safely.” Purcell, a retired pediatrician from Laurinburg, has been involved with shaken baby prevention efforts for more than 10 years.

Research has shown that shaking babies is both common and a leading cause of infant mortality. Nationally, an estimated 1,200 to 1,400 children a year receive medical treatment after being shaken. An estimated 25 percent of these children die, and 80 percent of survivors are left with some form of life-long brain injury.

Preliminary, unadjusted data from the baseline survey shows that almost one in 100 parents of children under 2 reported that they or their partner has shaken a child. Also, 1.3 percent of mothers in the survey reported having seen somebody other than their partner shake a child under 2 within the last year.

Jennipher Dickens’ son Christopher was shaken in 2006, when he was 7 weeks old, by another family member. He now has permanent brain damage.

“Too many people in this state and all across the country have never heard of shaken baby syndrome and are unaware that shaking a baby is harmful,” said Dickens, of Windsor, who spoke at the project’s announcement. She created Stop Shaken Baby Syndrome Inc. to promote prevention.

“Because he was shaken in a moment of anger and frustration, Christopher will suffer for the rest of his life. No baby should ever have to go through that pain and suffering.

“That’s why this program is so important. All parents and caregivers need to be educated on the fact that crying is normal and should be taught healthy ways of coping with crying so they will know how to deal with frustration when the situation arises,” Dickens said.

The co-principal investigator on the CDC research grant is Dr. Adam Zolotor ’97 (MPH, ’98 MD) of UNC’s department of family medicine. In addition, Heidi Hennink-Kaminski and Elizabeth Dougall of the UNC School of Journalism and Mass Communication will work with the National Center on Shaken Baby Syndrome to develop a statewide media campaign to address social norms about shaking and reinforce program messages through caregivers, family, and friends.

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