Cot death link to bacterial infections

Common bacterial infections could be linked to some cases of unexplained cot death, research suggests.

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A study, published in the Lancet, found samples from babies who had died for no apparent reason were more likely to carry potentially harmful bacteria.

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But the Great Ormond Street team which carried out the work said the findings did not alter current safety advice given to new parents.

There are around 250 sudden infant deaths a year in the UK, and although some can be proved to be due to an infection or other medical condition, the majority are never fully explained.

The latest research does not prove that bacteria are responsible for any of these unexplained deaths, although it does, according to its authors, suggest a connection between the two.

The researchers took samples from 470 babies who had died suddenly, and tested them for the presence of bacteria, particularly those capable of causing illness, such as Staphylococcus aureus or E. coli.

In some cases, the cause of death was known to be a bacterial infection, or completely unrelated to infection, for example a heart defect or accident. The rest were entirely unexplained.

Among those known to have died from a bacterial infection, 24% of the bacteria found were potentially harmful, compared with only 11% of those found in the non-infection group.

However, among the “unexplained” group, the figure was 19%, with 16% of bacteria found in this group identified as Staphylococcus, compared with 9% in the non-infection group.

Professor Nigel Klein, one of the study authors, said there were three possible explanations for the difference – pure coincidence, a role for bacteria in causing the death, and the presence of bacteria being due to an unrelated factor which increased the risk of cot death.

He said: “We don’t know which one of these is the case, and we certainly can’t say at the moment that these bacteria are causing sudden infant death.

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“However it is possible that these bacteria may be more likely to be present in children who are exposed to other risk factors, such as smoking, so this research does reinforce the need for parents to follow existing advice on minimising the risk of cot death.”

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