Premature babies prone to infection13th December 2011
Premature infants have fewer types of bacteria in their stomach and intestines, according to a recent US study, and a more diverse collection of viruses.
The same babies also host more dangerous bacteria than babies who are born after a full term of pregnancy, the researchers found.
Lead author Patrick Seed, an assistant professor of paediatrics at Duke University, said that microbial diversity emerged earlier in infants born after a full term, whereas there seemed to be some halted process in premature infants.
He said that, throughout the first month of life, premature babies seemed to be colonised by specific types of potentially dangerous bacteria and other microbes, species in particular that were also good at establishing dominance over competitors.
One such microbe was Candida, the fungus responsible for yeast infections.
He said that the hardiness of some microbes could be putting the infants at risk.
The infections were most prevalent during the first month of life, and lasted longer on average than infections in babies that were not born premature.
For the study, the researchers made use of a type of modern DNA sequencing technology known as deep pyrosequencing.
The researchers examined bacteria, fungi, and parasites in 11 premature babies, all of whom were classified as being of extremely low birth weight (ELBW).
Surprisingly, 71% of the babies' faecal samples tested positive for Trichinella, a parasite.
In the baby with the highest proportion of Trichinella DNA in its faecal samples, the researchers also found roundworm DNA.
Many of the babies also tested positive for viruses that eat bacteria, known as bacteriophages, as well as human adenovirus C.
Five of the babies had blood infections, and three of the babies had necrotising colitis, a specific type of bowel infection that kills tissue.
The researchers suspected that the overall lack of microbial diversity in the infants' gut bacteria could be due to the antibiotic treatments they were receiving, but that did not seem to be the case.
The babies' digestive tracts were particularly prone to infection by organisms usually found in stool specimens, as well as to Staphylococcus epidermidis.
While the researchers were not sure how the babies could have picked up their infections, they noted that possible sources could include breast milk, blood, or simply the air.
Seed said he believed it was important that future researchers investigate the sources of those pathogens, so that doctors could possibly manipulate the babies' environments or digestive systems.
He said that, while the presence of some bacteria was important to the developing immune system, it was a question of balance, and that doctors would not want to wipe out all of the babies' bacteria, even if it were potentially harmful.
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