Must Children Get Vitamin K? Case of Ill Israeli Baby Reignites Debate

Objections to the vitamin, affecting some 900 Israeli babies each year, may be part of a wider phenomenon of rejecting inoculations and other medical intervention.

The neonatal ward in Meir Hospital, Kfar Saba. This is an illustrative photo.
Alon Ron

Barely conscious, pale and suffering widespread intercranial bleeding, a 2-month-old baby was hospitalized last week in critical condition at Schneider Children’s Medical Center, in Petah Tikva. This was apparently the most recent example of what can happen when parents do not allow their babies to receive Vitamin C immediately after birth – a deficiency that affects some 900 newborns each year in the country, according to the Israel Pediatric Association.

Vitamin K is deemed to be essential in blood-clotting processes.

Tests showed that the infant in question, who was transferred to Schneider from Meir Hospital in Kfar Saba, was indeed suffering from Vitamin K deficiency; a CT scan of her head revealed widespread bleeding and sub-cranial pressure. She was given the vitamin, a blood transfusion and other, nonsurgical treatment, and transferred that same evening to the neurosurgery unit of the hospital, while unconscious and on a respirator, in a life-threatening condition.

Since then, the baby's situation has improved and it is no longer critical. It is still too early, however, to know if she suffered permanent neurological damage, and if so, how bad it is.

This is not the first instance in Israel of an infant showing similar symptoms, due to a Vitamin K deficiency. In December 2014, a 6-week-old baby was hospitalized at Sheba Medical Center, Tel Hashomer, in serious condition with bleeding and blood-clotting problems, after her parents had refused to allow her to be administered Vitamin K.

Vitamin K may be less well-known among other essential vitamins, but for years it has been given to newborns in hospitals all over the world – usually by injection, though sometimes orally, which is considered to be a less effective method. Discovered some 80 years ago, it is actually the only vitamin routinely given after birth, typically within the first two hours, along with the hepatitis B vaccine and an antibiotic eye ointment.

In recent years, as part of the broader global trend of opposition to vaccines or other outside medical intervention, the phenomenon of parents refusing to give their newborns Vitamin K has grown. It is still a rather marginal phenomenon, but the IPA believes that these two serious medical incidents within a year are more than just a coincidence.

As a result of last year's case, the association surveyed local hospitals and found that in 0.5 percent of all births in the country, parents refuse to give their babies Vitamin K – which translates into some 900 infants per year. About 95 percent who receive the vitamin do so in the form of an injection, while 4.5 percent receive it orally.

Dr. Rivka Regev, head of the neonatal department at Meir Hospital, confirms that the phenomenon of refusing vaccines and other treatment is rising every year.

“Even if the phenomenon of intracranial bleeding is not common statistically [in cases of Vitamin K deficiency], when it happens to a family it happens with a full force ־ but it is preventable,” said Regev.

The role of Vitamin K in the first few weeks of life is very important, experts add, since their bodies do not have any substantial reserves of the vital substance. In most cases, they say, the decision to refuse the vitamin goes hand in hand with a decision that breast-feeding will be the sole nourishment for the baby, which doctors say increases the danger even further since the vitamin is virtually absent in breast milk.

The IPA urges women who have undergone a home birth to go to a hospital as soon as possible, to have the Vitamin K shot administered to their newborns.