A leading medical examiner has claimed the support of colleagues in calling for an automatic autopsy in cases where infants die of unexplained causes. The proposal also has the support of Flemish family welfare organisation Kind & Gezin. According to Dr. Werner Jacobs, such deaths are routinely attributed to SIDS, or Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, whose causes are not known. In actual fact, he claims in a new book and on the VRT talk show Van Gils & Gasten, one in five SIDS cases are the result of violence.
The scientific definition of SIDS, referred to in Dutch as wiegendood or cot death, is the sudden and unexpected death of a child under the age of 18 months for which no cause is known. However according to Dr Jacobs (photo), who is head of judicial medicine at the university of Antwerp, that definition is too loose. “All too often, such a sudden death is immediately labelled cot death, and therefore unexplainable – so that no thorough examination follows.”
In most cases, he claims, a cause could be found. “About 40% die of an illness, a lung infection for example, or a congenital problem. Another 40% die of some sort of suffocation, caused by a pillow, or when a sleeping adult lies on top of the baby. And 20% die of violence. Once in a while we can’t find a cause, and in those cases we speak of cot death.”
A representative of the association for parents of cot death children spoke out against Dr Jacobs’ claims. “It seems to me he’s doing publicity for his new book,” said Josien Olders. “Cot death is a sensitive subject for anyone confronted with it, but Jacobs appears to be blaming the parents, as if they were all guilty for the death of their child.”
However the association does favour Dr Jacobs’ proposal for a mandatory autopsy in cot death cases. Kind & Gezin also supports the idea.
“Because we are concerned, and would like to understand the origins of cot death better, to amend our advice if necessary,” said spokesperson Leen Du Bois. “Certainly not to put the blame on parents.
As Het Nieuwsblad reports, the figures for cot deaths in Belgium have fallen dramatically in recent years, from 118 in 1993 to 13 in 2015. The fall coincides with advice for prevention given to all new parents: lay your child on their back when sleeping; in the parents’ bedroom but not in their bed; avoid certain medication and smoking in the presence of the infant.