Legal Helpline NEC

Cows’ milk-based infant formula and fortifiers have been linked to necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC) in babies who were born prematurely.

Formula and fortifiers are often recommended to help premature infants gain weight. Formula brands including Similac and Enfamil are marketed as a nutritionally complete alternative to breast milk, and some formulas are designed specifically for premature babies.

However, for babies with underdeveloped digestive systems, use of these formulas can cause a life-threatening condition.

What is NEC?

Necrotizing enterocolitis is a gastrointestinal condition that occurs primarily in premature babies, usually within two to six weeks after birth. In infants with NEC, intestinal tissue becomes inflamed, which causes the tissue to die. If a hole or perforation develops in the intestines, bacteria can leak into the abdomen or bloodstream. NEC can lead to lifelong complications or even death.

Why are premature babies at risk?

Babies born prematurely have weaker immune and digestive systems, which makes it more difficult for them to fight intestinal infections. Intestinal tissue can also become damaged due to diminished flow of oxygen-rich blood to the intestines. When intestinal tissue is damaged, bacteria can enter the abdominal cavity or bloodstream.

How is NEC diagnosed?

Premature infants with NEC may experience changes in vital signs, bloody diarrhea, swollen abdomens, or other symptoms. Healthcare providers may order blood tests, fecal tests, and abdominal X-rays for signs of NEC, including air bubbles around the intestine or abdominal cavity, which can indicate bowel damage or perforation.

Complications of NEC

Infants with NEC are at risk of developing severe complications, such as:

Abdominal infection: Bacteria can enter the abdominal cavity or bloodstream through a hole in the intestinal wall, causing an infection known as peritonitis, which increases the risk for sepsis, a life-threatening blood infection.

Intestinal stricture: As many as 30 percent of infants diagnosed with NEC develop intestinal strictures, or narrowing of the intestines, which may occur a few months after recovery. This condition makes digestion more difficult and may require surgery to fix.

Short bowel (short gut) syndrome: If sections of the small intestine are damaged or destroyed, the child may develop short bowel syndrome, which causes malabsorption, making it more difficult for the body to absorb fluids and nutrients. Children with short bowel syndrome may need lifelong care and tube feedings to thrive.

Failure to grow and developmental delays: NEC may also cause growth failure, poor neurodevelopmental outcomes, and developmental delays, particularly when surgery is required. Infants with these long-term complications will require monitoring of growth and development.

Surgery: About 25 percent of babies with NEC will require surgery to remove dead tissue and to repair holes or perforation. Some children will require an ostomy procedure.

Accountability for Formula Manufacturers

Parents of premature infants who have developed NEC from formula usage have filed claims against manufacturers. The lawsuits allege manufacturers of cows’ milk-based formulas such as Similac and Enfamil failed to warn consumers of serious health risks to premature babies.

Lawsuits also accuse manufacturers of aggressively marketing their formula products as safe and necessary for growth, despite the risk of necrotizing enterocolitis.

If your child was diagnosed with NEC after formula usage, you may be entitled to compensation.

Contact our NEC attorneys for a free case review.