According to a paediatrics professor quoted by news24, up to half of all South African children with cerebral palsy have the condition because of avoidable birth complications.
Similarly, leading obstetrician, Professor Hein Odendaal, noted that significant numbers of newborn babies suffer avoidable brain damage.
Oxygen deprivation is just one of the types of avoidable birth injuries affecting newborns in South Africa. Also, it’s not just babies that are at increased risk in South African hospitals – it’s mothers also. Especially in district hospitals, there has been a marked increase in the number of maternal deaths over the past decade.
What counts as medical negligence?
If a medical practitioner fails to meet accepted standards of treatment and care expected in the specific situation and either acts or fails to act in a way that results in injury to the patient, it may constitute medical negligence.
Not all birth injuries are the result of medical negligence. However, it’s clear that in South Africa, a large number of birth-related injuries, to both mothers and their babies, could have been prevented through more diligent medical care.
Where a birth injury is a result of medical negligence, the responsible medical professional and/or hospital may be legally liable to pay compensation to the victim or their immediate family.
Avoidable medical errors leading to birth injuries
Among the most common, avoidable errors made by physicians and obstetricians during childbirth include:
- failure to monitor the birth process and anticipate birth complications, such as oxygen deprivation due to a tangled umbilical cord or difficulty in delivery due to the infant’s size
- failure to respond to signs of foetal distress
- failure to order a C-section when necessary
- incompetent use of forceps, a vacuum extractor or other tools
- incorrect use of medication such as oxytocin – a drug widely used in South Africa to induce labour or speed up birth.
Common birth injuries due to negligence
Birth injuries range from minor to severe or fatal, and in some cases have life-long consequences for babies, mothers and their families.
Oxygen deprivation is a leading cause of birth injuries to South African babies. It commonly occurs when the placenta separates prematurely, the umbilical cord becomes entangled around the baby’s neck or the baby doesn’t start breathing independently after delivery.
Oxygen deprivation often leads to significant brain damage and can result in hearing impairment, partial or total blindness, learning disabilities, chronic seizures, developmental problems, and even death.
Cerebral palsy is a group of non-progressive, long-lasting conditions that cause mobility issues and physical disability. It’s one of the most common injuries resulting from medical negligence during childbirth.
Brachial palsy, Erb’s palsy and Klumpke’s palsy
These injuries occur when the nerve bundle responsible for moving the limbs (the brachial plexus) is damaged.
The most common cause is shoulder dystocia, a condition that occurs when the infant’s shoulders become trapped in the mother’s pelvic bone during delivery. This may result from a medical practitioner pulling too hard, or pulling incorrectly, during delivery.
If too much pressure is put on the infant’s face during birth, nerve damage may occur, causing facial paralysis. This often occurs when the physician uses forceps or vacuum extraction to deliver the baby.
Bone fractures can occur during delivery, particularly fractures to the clavicle or collarbone. While these may be unavoidable, they can occur when the physician fails to spot complications and perform a C-section, or pulls the infant too hard.
Injuries to the mother
Serious injuries and maternal deaths most often occur as a result of C-sections.
Medical negligence or incompetence during C-sections can lead to mothers dying from blood loss. They may also cause injury to organs such as the intestines and bladder and result in blood clots, uterine rupture and post-partum haemorrhaging.
If incorrect suturing is performed after an episiotomy or a C-section, this may result in tears, long-term discomfort and other complications.
Other common birth injuries suffered by mothers are vaginal tears, anal fissures, and forceps injuries to the urethra, bladder, genital tract and perineum.
Contacting a medical negligence attorney
Medical malpractice claims are complex and require specialist expertise to prosecute successfully. The medical practitioners, through their insurance companies, instruct top experts and lawyers to defend claims.
If you or your baby has sustained a serious injury during labour and/or the delivery process as a result of medical malpractice, contact us at DSC Attorneys for the best possible legal assistance.