A Mother’s Heartbreaking Story

Marie Smith, a mother from West St. Paul, Minnesota, is reliving the pain of losing her premature daughter Amirea to necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC) 18 years ago. She is among hundreds of parents nationwide suing baby formula makers Mead Johnson and Abbott Laboratories, alleging they failed to warn parents about the increased risk of NEC in premature infants fed popular cow’s milk-based formulas like Enfamil and Similac.

5 Key Points

  • Lawsuits claim formula makers failed to warn parents of the increased NEC risk in preemies fed cow’s milk formulas.
  • Studies dating back to 1990 show a significant increase in NEC risk in preemies fed formula rather than human milk.
  • The American Academy of Pediatrics advises that all preterm infants should receive human milk.
  • Formula makers dispute the findings and argue that the medical community has not confirmed a link between NEC and cow’s milk-based products.
  • Neonatologists say providing breast milk or donated human milk is one of the best ways to prevent NEC.

The Lawsuits

The first of these lawsuits went to trial in Illinois earlier this year, resulting in a $60 million verdict against Mead Johnson. Attorney Steve Reck called the verdict “a bellwether” for other cases, citing overwhelming evidence that Mead Johnson has known for decades about the increased NEC risk associated with their cow’s milk-based products for premature infants.

The lawsuits allege that formula makers have not included this information on their packaging and that some products are labeled “human milk fortifier,” which they claim is deceptive advertising. Mead Johnson and Abbott dispute the findings and plan to appeal the recent verdict, arguing that the medical and scientific community has not confirmed any link between NEC and cow’s milk-based infant nutritional products.

Amirea’s Story

Marie’s daughter Amirea was born prematurely at 32 weeks and initially seemed healthy. However, due to the early birth and C-section delivery, Marie did not produce enough breast milk, and the hospital supplemented with formula as “filler.” A week into her life, Amirea developed NEC and required unsuccessful intestinal surgery. She passed away on March 1, 2006. Marie says it was only after Amirea’s death that a doctor told her about the increased risk of NEC in formula-fed babies.

Preventing NEC

Neonatologists caution that cow’s milk-based formulas do not directly cause NEC, but they acknowledge that providing breast milk or donated human milk is one of the best ways to reduce the risk. Dr. Ravi Patel, a neonatologist at Emory University, points out that even breastfed premature infants can get NEC, but research shows that human milk is protective against the disease.

Minnesota Milk Bank for Babies collects and pasteurizes donor milk for hospitals, prioritizing medically fragile babies in the NICU. However, human milk is still more expensive than formula, and commercial insurance coverage can be “spotty.” In December 2023, Minnesota’s Department of Human Services revised guidelines for the state’s Medicaid program to include coverage of donor human milk for babies with a medical need.

Fighting for Change

Marie hopes that by sharing her story and joining the baby formula lawsuit, she can raise awareness of the increased NEC risk and spare other families the same fate. She says signing on to the suit was not about seeking a verdict, as nothing can bring Amirea back, but rather about raising awareness and preventing future tragedies.