Combating the Hidden Health Disparity of Kernicterus in Black Infants: A Review

JAMA Pediatr. 2020 Dec 1;174(12):1199-1205. doi: 10.1001/jamapediatrics.2020.1767.


Importance: Kernicterus is a devastating, permanently disabling neurologic condition resulting from bilirubin neurotoxicity. Black neonates account for more than 25% of kernicterus cases in the US, despite making up only approximately 14% of all births. This is a largely overlooked health disparity.

Observations: The black kernicterus health disparity exists despite a lower overall incidence of clinically significant hyperbilirubinemia among black neonates, a paradox recently explained by a previously unrecognized risk for hazardous hyperbilirubinemia. Aligned with national and global health initiatives to reduce or eliminate health disparities, this review highlights the multiple biologic and nonbiologic factors contributing to kernicterus risk in black infants and approaches to reduce this health disparity. This includes both parent-level and clinician-level kernicterus prevention strategies, with an emphasis on improving parental health literacy on neonatal jaundice and acute bilirubin encephalopathy and clinician awareness of the key factors that contribute to hazardous hyperbilirubinemia risk in this vulnerable group. Parent-level prevention strategies include efforts to improve their health literacy on neonatal jaundice and acute bilirubin encephalopathy and empower care seeking for jaundice. Clinician-level prevention strategies include efforts to eliminate community and institutional barriers that impede access to care, heighten clinician awareness of the factors that contribute to kernicterus risk in this vulnerable patient group, and strengthen newborn hyperbilirubinemia management and bilirubin surveillance.

Conclusions and relevance: There are multiple opportunities for intervention to reduce black kernicterus risk. Although kernicterus is a rare disorder, the incidence among black infants is not a trivial matter nor are efforts to prevent kernicterus. While the multiple interacting biologic and nonbiologic contributors to increased kernicterus risk among black infants pose a considerable challenge to clinicians, there are opportunities for intervention to reduce this risk and health disparity. Continued study is imperative to understand the current scope of kernicterus and its occurrence in black neonates.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Black People / statistics & numerical data*
  • Humans
  • Hyperbilirubinemia, Neonatal / epidemiology
  • Hyperbilirubinemia, Neonatal / prevention & control
  • Incidence
  • Infant, Newborn
  • Kernicterus / epidemiology*
  • Kernicterus / etiology
  • Kernicterus / prevention & control*