Baby poisoners

On Friday, a 41-year-old Missouri woman was charged with poisoning her granddaughter with an anti-clotting medication. The reason: she wanted to scare the one-year-old's parents into uniting over the child's illness and giving up their divorce plans.

The poisoning was discovered when the little girl began bleeding uncontrollably from her mouth and nose. Although doctors treated her successfully, they expressed concern about long-term damage. High exposure to anti-coagulents, usually members of the Warfarin family of drugs, such as Coumadin, has been linked to heart and bone damage.

Bizarre as the case seems, it actually fits into a familiar pattern in the United States today. The most frequent poison victims - by accident or deliberation - are young children. Children six and under account for fully half of all accidental poisonings  in the United States, according to the National Centers for Poison Control.

Homicidal poisonings are more rare - thankfully - but they've been creeping upward since the late 1990s. An analysis published last year in the journal Clinical Toxicology found that poison murders went from .2 per million in 2000 to .3 per million in 2005. Children less than one year old were nine times more likely than the general population to be victims of "non-accidental" poisonings, the study authors reported.

Greene Shepherd, a clinical professor in the University of Georgia's school of pharmacy, who was lead author on the study, said most child poisonings are by frustrated parents, who pour sedatives and analgesics into infants, trying to make them be quiet. "In some cases," he said with careful understatement, "they make bad choices."

In other words, as in Missouri, the poisoning is deliberate. Drugs like Coumadin are prescribed for ailments in which blood-clots pose a risk.  They work by interfering with the metabolism of vitamin K, which is necessary for the proteins involved in the formation of blood clots.  This is good if one is prone to risky clots. In most situations, however, we should be grateful, very grateful, that blood clots at all.  It means that we don't bleed out  from every sliced finger or nicked chin. People on anti-coagulents have to worry about every injury, even minor ones. In this case, the baby girl did scratch herself and those scratches bled without stop until doctors treated her with a Vitamin-K rich antidote.

The 41-year-old grandmother at first tried to persuade the parents that the baby had eaten some rat poison - Warfarin is also used as a pesticide - but by last week that story had fallen apart. She was charged Friday with child endangerment and booked into the Jefferson City jail.

Why are child poisonings the most common? For obvious and unhappy reasons. They're easy. The victims are often physically helpless, always depenent. Far too trusting. They're common because the balance of power is so clearly in the adult's hands.

It doesn't right the wrong to see the poisoner punished. But it adds some balance to the story. Power abused should be power taken away.

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