Autopsies are important in the investigation of childhood deaths. Most natural deaths are unlikely to come to the attention of the forensic pathologist, particularly in cases where death occurs in hospital. During the neonatal period (up to 28 days of age), deaths most commonly occur as a result of prematurity and related conditions, chromosomal abnormalities, or congenital malformations. Beyond the neonatal period, trauma-related deaths and sudden infant death syndrome are more common. In terms of natural acquired diseases of childhood, certain conditions are prevalent based on age and may be encountered at autopsy. Common acquired diseases that cause death in infants and children up to 5 years of age include pneumonia and other respiratory diseases, other infectious diseases, and malignancies. In older children, mortality due to natural disease declines substantially with trauma being the major cause of death, and malignancies the major cause of acquired disease. Sudden and/or unexpected deaths in which a natural disease state was previously unknown are most likely to come under the jurisdiction of the medical examiner or coroner and may be related to an underlying natural disease. Depending on the underlying disease process, the approach can differ, and therefore familiarity with common causes of death during childhood is important in order to focus the autopsy so that special techniques can be used along with obtaining proper ancillary testing to arrive at an accurate diagnosis and cause of death.
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