Video clue to cot death mystery

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The Independent Online
Research findings by a controversial British doctor who claims to have used hidden cameras to film mothers trying to strangle or choke their babies are to be published in an American medical journal.

Paediatrician Dr David Southall became a deeply controversial figure when it emerged that he had arranged the secret taping of parents after their children were hospitalised because they were thought to be at risk of cot death - also known as Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (Sids).

But Pediatrics, the journal of the American Academy of Pediatricians, will publish his work as the leading article in its November issue along with a "laudatory" commentary from one of America's best-known experts on child abuse.

The journal's editor, Dr Jerold Lucey, said Dr Southall had been pilloried in some quarters in Britain for approving the secret filming of families where he suspected that abuse, not medical illness, explained cot death. But attitudes were very different on the other side of the Atlantic, and the article was an attempt to vindicate Dr Southall's work, much of it at the North Staffordshire Infirmary in Stoke-on-Trent.

"The British attitude seems to be that it wasn't cricket," Dr Lucey said. "We happen to think he's a hero." He said the journal would seek permission to take the videotapes and make them available on the Internet as a teaching tool, with faces blocked out.

Most pediatricians cannot bring themselves to believe that a mother could murder her own child, but Dr Southall's work was "proof positive" in pictures. Dr Southall has become a major figure in a debate that has raged on both sides of the Atlantic for 25 years over the medical diagnosis of Sids and how often it is a cover for child abuse or infanticide - particularly where a previous death of a child in a family is blamed on cot death.

In 1972, Pediatrics published an article that examined two deaths from Sids in a New York family, and suggested that it could run in families. It helped to create an entire industry devoted to diagnosing and testing for Sids. But two decades later the mother in the case, Waneta Hoyt, confessed to killing five of her children.

Dr Southall, armed with studies of thousands of children, led those who challenged the notion that Sids ran in families and set out to prove that it was impossible to identify babies that were going to die. His work is described in a new book, The Killing of Innocents, published in the US by Bantam.

Dr Lucey refused to supply a copy of the journal, saying it was embargoed for publication in November, and Dr Southall did not return phone calls yesterday. But his work will reportedly be printed alongside new US research showing that of 155 cases of "near miss" Sids cases at a hospital in Massachusetts over 20 years, in which children have reportedly stopped breathing and been revived, one-third had suspicious circumstances.

The article brings together research that started in the 1980s and reportedly involved the filming of hundreds of parents hospitalised with their infant children.