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SAMJ: South African Medical Journal

On-line version ISSN 2078-5135
Print version ISSN 0256-9574


VAN DEVENTER, B S; ROSSOUW, S H  and  DU TOIT-PRINSLOO, L. Sudden and unexpected childhood deaths investigated at the Pretoria Medico-Legal Laboratory, South Africa, 2007 - 2011. SAMJ, S. Afr. med. j. [online]. 2016, vol.106, n.10, pp.983-985. ISSN 2078-5135.

BACKGROUND. Sudden and unexpected death is well known to occur in infants, and although sudden deaths are less frequent after the first birthday, they still account for a significant proportion of childhood deaths. In 2009, 1.9% of the total deaths in the USA were childhood deaths. In South Africa (SA) this proportion was much higher at 11.85%. According to the law, sudden and unexpected deaths are generally investigated as unnatural deaths. Establishing an exact underlying anatomical cause of death will depend on available resources and can be difficult in a substantial proportion of cases. METHODS. A retrospective descriptive case audit was conducted at the Pretoria Medico-Legal Laboratory (PMLL), SA, from 1 January 2007 through to 31 December 2011. All children aged 1 - 18 years who died suddenly and unexpectedly were included. RESULTS. Ninety-eight cases were identified, which constituted nearly 1% of total admissions to the PMLL. The majority of the deaths were of children aged 1 - 5 years, and the male/female ratio was 1.04:1. In the largest proportion of cases (n=28, 28.6%), the medicolegal investigation, including autopsy and ancillary investigations, did not establish an underlying anatomical cause of death. In the cases where a cause of death was established, pneumonia was the most common diagnosis (n=22, 22.4%). CONCLUSIONS. The fact that the cause of the largest proportion of deaths could not be ascertained emphasises the need for consideration of additional investigative techniques, such as molecular/genetic screening, which have provided an underlying cause of death in a significant number of cases in other countries. There is a lack of published research on the causes and incidence of sudden unexpected deaths in children in SA, and further research in this area is needed.

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