EBR coroner: Suffocations were preventable

Advocate staff photo by BILL FEIG -- Dr. William 'Beau' Clark, East Baton Rouge Parish Coroner, speaks at a press conference regarding infant deaths related to positional asphyxia.
Advocate staff photo by BILL FEIG -- Dr. William 'Beau' Clark, East Baton Rouge Parish Coroner, speaks at a press conference regarding infant deaths related to positional asphyxia.

East Baton Rouge Parish Coroner Dr. Beau Clark urged parents Thursday to ensure their babies are sleeping in a safe environment, seeking to stem the community’s rate of infant suffocations.

“One of the worst events that can occur in our community is the loss of a child,” Clark said at a news conference. “I’m here to tell you that these deaths are preventable.”

Clark’s remarks come just over a week after twin 8-month-old girls suffocated in their crib in Baker. The babies, London and Paris Collins, suffocated after they were swaddled and laid to sleep on their sides on top of pillows, Clark determined.

The twins rolled over in a crib with thick bedding and were unable to breathe, Clark said.

The Coroner’s Office has already investigated four cases of positional asphyxia in 2013, Clark said, noting the parish had eight such cases in 2012. The deadly condition occurs when a person’s position prevents adequate breathing.

“In some instances it was the result of an unsafe sleeping environment with pillows or loose bed sheeting, stuffed animals, things of that nature,” Clark said. “In other cases it was a result of co-sleeping — when the infant was sharing a bed either with a sibling or an adult.”

Parents should always place swaddled infants to sleep on their back — not the stomach or side, Clark said. The bed should be firm without any loose blankets, stuffed animals, bumper pads or pillows.

“Adults tend to put pillows into cribs because that is what we as adults would do,” Clark said. “It’s not what kids need. Kids need an environment with a firm mattress.”

Parents may share a room with their infants but should never sleep in the same bed, Clark added. The temperature of the room may be adjusted to keep a baby warm, the coroner said, but blankets should not be added to the crib.

“It’s my hope and intention to educate our community of this situation and prevent these very tragic situations,” Clark said. “We’re hoping that by making the public more aware that we’re done investigating infant deaths for the year.”

Continued education about infant mortality is something medical experts agree is needed to improve Louisiana’s ranking as the state with the second worst infant mortality rate in the country, based on the most recent figures from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, that showed Louisiana had 570 infant deaths in 2009.

Amy Zapata, with the Maternal and Child Health Program at the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals, said the Office of Public Health recently began a new public awareness campaign titled Safe Sleep, which is aimed at educating people about safe sleeping environments for infants.

Alexa Erck, an epidemiologist with the Office of Public Health in Bureau of Family Health at DHH, said parents need to practice their ABCs when putting infants down to sleep.

“Alone, on their back and in a crib — that kind of sums up the Safe Sleep and Give Your Baby Space campaigns,” Erck said.

Part of the DHH public information campaign is to educate parents about SIDS, or sudden infant death syndrome.

“The national trend is to educate and inform health care providers and the public on those definitions,” Zapata said.

SIDS is a diagnosis for when all of the options have been exhausted and the coroner’s office can find no plausible explanation as to why the child died after a thorough investigation.

SIDS is responsible for about 80 infant deaths per year in Louisiana, according to the DHH website.

Zapata said DHH recently received a small grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that allows DHH officials to work with and teach coroners and clinicians about making an accurate SIDS diagnosis and all the steps that need to be met for that diagnosis

Clark said in a prior interview that the coroner’s office has had no deaths ruled as SIDS since he took office following his election in November 2011. He said SIDS’ diagnoses should be rare and that more thorough investigations into infant deaths would unearth specific reasons why the infant died.

“It’s all about prevention,” Clark said.

Clark said he changed the way the office investigates sudden infant deaths since he has taken office.

He said investigators strictly adhere to a nationally recognized infant death investigation model, which he said the office had not mandated before he took office.