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Abusive head trauma and accidental head injury: a 20-year comparative study of referrals to a hospital child protection team

30 Jun 2015


To describe children referred for suspected abusive head trauma (AHT) to a hospital child protection team in Auckland, New Zealand.


Comparative review of demographics, histories, injuries, investigations and diagnostic outcomes for referrals under 15 years old from 1991 to 2010.


Records were available for 345 children. Referrals increased markedly (88 in the first decade, 257 in the second), but the diagnostic ratio was stable: AHT 60%, accidental or natural 29% and uncertain cause 11%. The probability of AHT was similar regardless of socio-economic status or ethnicity. In children under 2 years old with accidental head injuries (75/255, 29%) or AHT (180/255, 71%), characteristics of particular interest for AHT included no history of trauma (88/98, 90%), no evidence of impact to the head (84/93, 90%), complex skull fractures with intracranial injury (22/28, 79%), subdural haemorrhage (160/179, 89%) and hypoxic ischaemic injury (38/39, 97%). In children over 2 years old, these characteristics did not differ significantly between children with accidental head injuries (21/47, 45%) and AHT (26/47, 55%). The mortality of AHT was higher in children over 2 years old (10/26, 38%) than under 2 years (19/180, 11%).


The striking increase in referrals for AHT probably represents increasing incidence. The decision to refer a hospitalised child with a head injury for assessment for possible AHT should not be influenced by socio-economic status or ethnicity. Children over 2 years old hospitalised for AHT are usually injured by mechanisms involving impact and should be considered at high risk of death.

Click here to view the full article which appeared in Archives of Disease in Childhood