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Anesthesia risks for kids debated

Lauran Neergaard
Associated Press

Washington – — Studies of baby animals have long suggested that going under anesthesia can have some harmful effects on a developing brain. Now some scientists want to find out whether those same drugs may pose subtle risks for human babies and toddlers.

It’s a balancing act: Doctors don’t want to unnecessarily frighten parents whose tots need general anesthesia for crucial surgery. There’s no clear evidence of side effects, such as learning or attention impairment, in youngsters.

Wednesday, an anesthesia research group, partnered with the Food and Drug Administration, said it’s time for a large study of children younger than 3 to settle the question.

Meanwhile, “surgeons, anesthesiologists and parents should consider carefully how urgently surgery is needed, particularly in children under 3 years of age,” concluded a report in The New England Journal of Medicine co-authored by the FDA’s current and former anesthesia chiefs along with doctors in the SmartTots research partnership.

Already, in the vast majority of cases, children that young only undergo surgery if it is medically necessary, not elective. Some operations, such as to correct birth defects, have better outcomes at earlier ages, surgeons recently told the FDA.

“Millions of kids safely undergo anesthesia,” stressed SmartTots co-author Dr. Beverley Orser, a professor of anesthesia at the University of Toronto.

Those drugs have been used for decades so any big risk would have been spotted by now, she said. But with animal studies raising the possibility of subtle effects on behavior or learning, “we have to sort this out,” Orser added.

At issue are drugs used for general anesthesia and sedation, not local anesthetics.