The presentation, pattern of acute illness, and incidence of learning difficulties are described in 63 (33 boys, 30 girls) children with salt wasting 21-hydroxylase deficiency, drawn from a cohort study of congenital adrenal hyperplasia in the South West Region of England between 1968 and 1988. Thirty boys presented with a salt losing crisis from birth whereas the other three boys presented between 2 and 14 months of age with failure to thrive and hyponatraemia. Diagnostic uncertainty led to 13 (43%) of 30 girls developing a salt losing crisis. Five girls were misassigned as boys at birth. There were four deaths in the group, two due to salt losing crisis, one to complications of prematurity possibly compounded by 21-hydroxylase deficiency, and one from heart failure probably related to an excess of steroids. Acute admissions were common, especially during the first year of life, with convulsions in 7% of admissions. The 9% incidence of hypoglycaemia was considered to be an underestimate as blood glucose was measured in only 56 (22%) of 254 admissions. No convulsions occurred in the 38 (15%) admissions where the parents had given intramuscular hydrocortisone before bringing the child to hospital. A high incidence of learning difficulties was found among the 59 surviving children (9/30 (30%) boys and 6/29 (21%) girls), and in only two children could any factor other than 21-hydroxylase deficiency be invoked. Analysis of the subgroup with learning difficulties indicated that they were more ill at presentation with a significantly higher incidence of hypoglycaemia, and that growth in the first year was significantly worse. It is concluded that congenital adrenal hyperplasia remains a formidable disorder with an appreciable mortality and morbidity. The high incidence of learning difficulties seen in salt wasting 21-hydroxylase deficiency needs further attention. A prospective study is indicated to examine the effect of neonatal screening on morbidity from congenital adrenal hyperplasia, particularly the intellectual impairment seen in this study.
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