NEW ORLEANS -- A nationwide ban on the use of the preservative benzyl alcohol controlled a 'gasping syndrome' that killed premature infants, the doctor who identified the condition says.
Dr. Juan J. Gershanik, head of the Neonatal Pediatric Intensive Care Unit of Southern Baptist Hospital in New Orleans, said no gasping syndrome deaths have been reported since the federal Food and Drug Administration issued a warning against using benzyl alcohol.
Benzyl alcohol is a preservative used to keep solutions sterile for injection into the body. It also is used to dilute and reconstitute medicines, the physician said.
Infants in whom the syndrome was spotted gasped for breath about 20 times per minute, an article in the New England Journal of Medicine reported.
The warning was issued in June, after a report indicating six premature New Orleans infants had died during a 16-month period. Each of the babies weighed less than 3 pounds and suffered breathing problems, said Gershanik, who was credited with identifying the syndrome.
The physician said Wednesday after the report was issued that officials extended research to include deaths among premature infants dating to mid-1979 and attributed an additional four New Orleans deaths to the alcohol compound.
The Oregon Health Sciences University in Portland, Ore., listed 10 similar deaths during a six-month period, he said.
Gershanik said substitute solutions have been used since the warning against benzyl alcohol was released and no noticeable side effects have surfaced, although doctors had expressed concern about the possibility of increased infections in premature infants.
'But this hasn't been a problem,' he said.
Gershanik said doctors could not tell how many premature infants had died from having too much benzyl alcohol in their systems 'because so many of the babies are so critical' from other causes, including respiratory disorders.
The babies who died from the syndrome had unique symptoms, Gershanik said.
'That's what triggered the questions,' he said. 'When we analyzed it in a group, they (infant cases) seemed strikingly similar.'
He said the use of benzyl alcohol was acceptable in the medical profession at the time of the deaths.
'There is little information on these medicines for very small, sick babies,' Gershanik said. 'They react differently from an older child' or full-term newborns.
The doctor said researchers continue to investigate how the compound affects premature infants.