Biliary atresia is the failure of a fetus to develop an adequate pathway for bile to drain from the liver to the intestine.
Biliary atresia is a congenital condition in which the pathway for bile to drain from the liver to the intestine is undeveloped. It is the most common lethal liver disease in children.
Biliary atresia is the most common lethal liver disease in children, occurring once every 10,000-15,000 live births. Half of all liver transplants are done for this reason.
The normal anatomy of the bile system begins within the liver, where thousands of tiny bile ducts collect bile from liver cells. These ducts merge into larger and larger channels, like streams flowing into rivers, until they all pour into a single duct that empties into the duodenum (first part of the small intestine). Between the liver and the duodenum this duct has a side channel connected to the gall bladder. The gall bladder stores bile and concentrates it, removing much of its water content. Then, when a meal hits the stomach, the gall bladder contracts and empties its contents.
Bile is a mixture of waste chemicals that the liver removes from the circulation and excretes through the biliary system into the intestine. On its way out, bile assists in the digestion of certain nutrients. If bile cannot get out because the channels are absent or blocked, it backs up into the liver and eventually into the rest of the body. The major pigment in bile is a chemical called bilirubin, which is yellow. Bilirubin is a breakdown product of hemoglobin (the red chemical in blood that carries oxygen). If the body accumulates an excess of bilirubin, it turns yellow (jaundiced). Bile also turns the stool brown. Without it, stools are the color of clay.
It is possible that a viral infection is responsible for this disease, but evidence is not yet convincing. The cause remains unknown.
The affected infant will appear normal at birth and during the newborn period. After two weeks the normal jaundice of the newborn will not disappear, and the stools will probably be clay colored. At this point, the condition will come to the attention of a physician. If not, the child's abdomen will begin to swell, and the infant will get progressively more ill. Nearly all untreated children will die of liver failure within two years.
The persistence of jaundice beyond the second week in a newborn with clay-colored stools is a sure sign of obstruction to the flow of bile. An immediate evaluation that includes blood tests and imaging of the biliary system will confirm the diagnosis.
Surgery is the only treatment. Somehow the surgeon must create an adequate pathway for bile to escape the liver into the intestine. The altered anatomy of the biliary system is different in every case, calling upon the surgeon's skill and experience to select and execute the most effective among several options. If the obstruction is only between the gall bladder and the intestine, it is possible to attach a piece of intestine directly to the gall bladder. More likely, the upper biliary system will also be inadequate, and the surgeon will attach a piece of intestine directly to the liver-theKasai procedure. In its wisdom, the body will discover that the tiny bile ducts in that part of the liver are discharging their bile directly into the intestine. Bile will begin to flow in that direction, and the channels will gradually enlarge. Survival rates for the Kasai procedure are commonly 50% at five years and 15% at 10 years. Persistent disease in the liver gradually destroys the organ.
Before liver transplants became available, even prompt and effective surgery did not cure the whole problem. Biliary drainage can usually be established, but the patients still have a defective biliary system that develops progressive disease and commonly leads to an early death. Transplantation now achieves up to 90% one-year survival rates and promises to prevent the chronic disease that used to accompany earlier procedures.
The specific cause of this birth defect is unknown, so all that women can do is to practice the many general preventive measures, even before they conceive.